Hospitals, educators and community leaders are trying to stay competitive to recruit and keep medical professionals, specifically nurses, in Northwest Arkansas.
The area has had a notable shortage of nurses for more than a decade, according to regional reports. As the Fayetteville Metropolitan Statistical Area continues to grow, the need for nurses grows with it. The area includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties in Arkansas and McDonald County, Mo.
Registered nurses make up 2 percent of all jobs and 34 percent of all health care practitioners/technical occupations in the United States, according to May 2016 data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Northwest Arkansas, the estimated 3,280 nurses make up 1.4 percent of the overall workforce and 30 percent of health care employees.
The U.S. has about nine nurses per 1,000 residents while Northwest Arkansas has six per 1,000, using 2016 Census Bureau data.
One thing that stands out when comparing nursing jobs in Northwest Arkansas to peer regions is the difference in salaries.
The Northwest Arkansas Council, an economic development organization, selected five peer regions in 2015 to benchmark the area’s performance. The regions are Austin, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Madison, Wis.; and Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh, N.C., according to the 2017 State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report.
The annual average wage of registered nurses in Northwest Arkansas is the lowest of the peer regions at $56,680, and the highest is $75,990 in Madison. Arkansas’ average is $57,630, and nationally registered nurses make an average of $72,180, according to federal data.
Northwest Arkansas is smaller than its peer regions and has the lowest average annual wages for all workers at $44,980, according to the region report. Peer regions ranged from $49,420 in Des Moines to $57,850 in Durham-Chapel Hill.
The area has lower housing costs than the peer regions when comparing the cost of homeownership as percent of income. This is the biggest factor when comparing wage rates, said Mervin Jebaraj, interim director for the Center of Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas and who worked on the region report.
Hospitals in Northwest Arkansas continue expanding with the needs of the community.
There is an increased need for licensed health care professionals, including nurses, said Lisa Lightner, Washington Regional Medical Center executive director of talent acquisition and development.
Lightner said recruiting medical professionals from across the nation to her hospital is more about getting them to fall in love with the community and the beauty of the region. She said the main reason she sees people taking jobs in Northwest Arkansas is because of the community’s growth and potential.
“With continuing efforts in market research, Washington Regional has remained competitive within our region and within specialty medical fields — allowing Washington Regional to attract the top talent to provide the best care for our patients,” Lightner said.
Abby Martens is a native Texan and 2016 University of Arkansas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Her first job was at Mercy, which she said she loved, but she started working at Highlands Oncology Group in Rogers to have a daytime schedule.
“I could easily be making more money in Dallas, like, $6, $7 an hour more,” she said, “But basically, salary wasn’t a huge deal for me in deciding where to work — it was absolutely the work environment. I wanted to hang around Fayetteville with my friends, and my younger brother was already at UA. I love this area, and that’s ultimately why I chose to stay here.”
Registered nurse Hannah Schnelle graduated from Missouri State University in 2016 and got her clinical experience at Mercy in Springfield.
“I had heard even better things about the environment and community of Mercy in Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “So I guess it was mostly the staff and working environment that drew me to Mercy. I also went hiking in Arkansas a lot and loved the nature and how many people are outdoorsy and friendly here.”
Arkansas Children’s Northwest has recruited talent from around the nation as well as the state, and now has 30 physicians in addition to 293 other employees at its Springdale hospital.
Hillary DeMillo, senior media relations specialist, agrees offering competitive salaries and the livability of the region are big factors in recruiting experienced, talented medical professionals; however, there’s much more.
“The mission that we have for statewide system of care is to make children better today and healthier tomorrow,” DeMillo said. “People are really, really attracted to working for something bigger than themselves. So many people want to come here because of the mission.”
Those from the Northwest Arkansas Council and in higher education said they think expanding secondary education programs, university scholarships and residency programs for college graduates will help fill the shortage.
Susan Patton is the interim director and assistant professor at Eleanor Mann School of Nursing at the University of Arkansas. She said student loans often weigh heavily on students, especially those going into nursing who aren’t paid as much as other medical professionals.
Some nursing students are from Texas or other nearby states and end up going home after graduation, Patton said.
“They can live with their parents and work nights, because when they’re a new nurse that’s what they do is work nights. It’s a good way to save up some money so they can move out on their own,” she said.
About 55 percent of UA health profession 2015-16 graduates stayed in the state, either in a job or higher education, according to a university survey of 247 graduates. Almost 70 percent stayed in one of the four large Northwest Arkansas cities. Nearly 37 percent went out of state for jobs or graduate programs, with 45 percent of those going to Texas.
The Northwest Arkansas Council is also working to increase interest of younger residents in the profession.
Mike Harvey, the council’s chief of operations, said they are working with schools to start and expand career-oriented programs. On the secondary level, at least six schools have health programs and several others want to start, he said.
“Some of the issues we are facing could be addressed if you get kids interested in these programs and offer them education and a certification to take into the workplace,” he said.
The first step on the ladder is for a high school student to already be a certified nursing assistant when she graduates, for example, he said.
Martens said she thinks work environment is critical for keeping young nurses at a hospital and in the profession.
“I did my clinicals primarily at a hospital here where I was not overly impressed by the team aspect. It seemed like the nurses didn’t like each other and that as a new graduate, I might experience the ‘nurses eating their young’ phenomenon that I heard about in school,” she said. “As a new graduate, all I wanted was a place where I would be treated with patience and kindness as I figured out how to do in-patient nursing.”
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Patton said they teach their students “evidence-based practices” and that applies to researching what makes a good hospital work environment.
“In the first year after graduating from nursing school, the turnover rate is very high, and a lot of nurses will leave,” she said. “So it is very important to choose the right hospital where you can get a lot of support and mentoring and someone to hold your hand and take you through those first few months.”
Some hospitals are recognized for that. They are called magnet hospitals. The American Nurses’ Credentialing Center awards that label to hospitals that satisfy criteria designed to measure the strength and quality of their nursing, according to the center’s website.
In Little Rock, Arkansas Children’s and St. Vincent’s hospitals have magnet status, and Dallas has more.
While the magnet status doesn’t automatically carry to Arkansas Children’s Northwest, the level of care extends up from Little Rock, said Laura Spies, human resource manager. The hospital has a robust orientation program and sent new nurses to Little Rock for training, she said.
“They were so dedicated to do that and travel each week,” Spies said. “We didn’t lose any in the process, and they are all excited and can’t wait to take care of children in NWA. The nursing field has so many opportunities.”
Spies said the nursing shortage is a nationwide issue and mainly affects bedside nurses who provide direct patient care.
“It’s tough work. It’s 12-hour shifts on your feet, and it can be grueling,” she said. “If they do tire of being by the bedside, for example, they can become educators or go into a management position. There are varied levels of training here to increase their skills as well as pay and keep them challenged and engaged.”
Patton said a residency program is another important thing.
“Instead of just throwing you out there, they are going to give you another six months or even a year of orientation and working side by side with a good mentor,” Patton said.
The UA school of nursing worked with hospitals locally to start residency programs. Patton attended Washington Regional’s graduation of its fourth cohort in its residency program Feb. 7, and she said that’s helping to recruit new nurses to the hospital.
Martens said many in her field are excited to have Arkansas Children’s Northwest because of its status and because they hope the hospital will pay higher salaries.
Patton said, “Immediately when Children’s said they were coming here, everyone applied. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Ashton Eley can be reached by email at email@example.com or Twitter@NWAAshton.