MAYS LANDING — Nursing students about to finish Atlantic Cape Community College’s program as Registered Nurses milled around the student center Monday at a job fair to help them choose what hospital or other facility to apply to, or what further education to choose next.
Some had already chosen their next step.
“I applied to a step-down trauma unit at AtlantiCare,” said Keshia Williams, 26, of Egg Harbor Township. She had already been hired by the hospital system but was there with a friend Onessa Minard, of Ventnor, who was considering her options.
Williams, a 2013 graduate of Atlantic City High School, first got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rowan University before deciding to go to nursing school, she said.
Minard, a 2016 graduate of Atlantic City High School, said she had wanted to be a neo-natal nurse since middle school.
She can’t get hired directly to a neo-natal job, she said, so is applying to be a medical/surgical floor nurse for a year or so before she will be eligible to try for a neo-natal job.
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“Most likely it will be AtlantiCare,” she said of where she will accept a position. “It’s local and they have really good benefits.”
“We’ve already hired many nursing,” said Jacqueline Bortu, AtlantiCare manager and recruiter. She said the hospital system has more job openings than normal, but isn’t experiencing the severe shortages many are facing.
Bortu worked as a medical/surgical nurse and in labor and delivery for about 13 years before taking on the recruiting job about a year ago, she said.
“I can speak to the variety,” she said, with so many different types of nursing available to people.
Williams and Menard said they are both probably going to enroll in a bachelor’s of nursing program at William Paterson University. That would be an online program, they said.
Both plan to get their bachelor’s while employed, with the cost of tuition covered by the employer.
About 100 to 110 students are accepted into the two-year nursing program at Atlantic Cape each year, said Geralynn Michelfelder chairperson of Atlantic Cape’s Nursing Department.
“It is competitive to get in. That gives us the best students,” Michelfelder said.
Andrew Chillari 25, of Ventnor, is a Holy Spirit graduate of the Class of 2014. He is already working at Cooper Hospital as an operating room technician, he said, and plans to be an operating room nurse.
Chillari spent some time talking to Carla Donega, associate director of Health Professions Partnerships for Thomas Edison University in Trenton.
Donega said the school specializes in catering to the needs of adult learners with full-time jobs, not only offering classes online but classes which can be taken at any time of day or night for extreme flexibility.
The 2021 class is graduated into a shortage of nurses. The field suffers from burnout of longer-term nurses who had to work long hours under great stress, especially in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michelfelder said.
A recent New Jersey Hospital Association 70% of the state’s hospitals on the extent of the worker shortage and found the RN vacancy rate increased to 13.4% in 2021, from 8.2% in 2020.
Hospitals reported spending about $222 million for agency and travel staff, which fill in for a lack of full-time nurses, in 2020, and about $670 million in 2021.
“What’s amazing is, in light of all that, we still have all these students willing to enroll and be part of caring for patients,” Michelfelder said.
Currently about 20% of Atlantic Cape nursing students are male and 47% are members of minority groups, she said.
The program to earn an RN costs about $23,000 over two years, according to Atlantic Cape’s website.
For a time, the typical age of students was late 20s to early 30s, Michelfelder said. But in the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, the average age has fallen.
“There has been a lot of publicity about nurses on the front lines, and as heroes,” Michelfelder said. Younger people see it as a way of doing something that makes a difference, she said.
“I’m thinking of doing maternity and OB (obstetrics) nursing,” said Shannen Haviland, 23, of Upper Township. “I’m working in an OB office now, as a medical assistant.”
She wants to stay in the area for her first nursing job and to finish a bachelor’s degree, she said.
A graduate of Ocean City High School Class of 2016, she is leaning towards Rutgers University for her next step in education.
Most of South Jersey’s hospital systems were there to recruit, as was Recovery Centers of America at Lighthouse in Mays Landing.
“We’re looking for nurses who have a passion to treat people with addictions — to alcohol or other drugs. We treat them all,” said Tracy Terrana, nurse training manager for Lighthouse.
Nurses’ primary responsibility in such settings is dispensing medication, she said.
“But we don’t want people to just give pills,” said Joseph Ognibene, Lighthouse’s director of nursing. “We want nurses to hand out compassion.”
REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post