The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, pretty much summed up the goal of a happy professional life when he mused: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

A stellar goal, but what if you’re a modern day nurse searching for your first fulfilling position after graduation? How do you find a job that meets your expectations in a market that’s not always as receptive to new baccalaureate or BSN-trained nurses as it is to seasoned pros? With administrators often focusing their keen eyes on experience in an economy that doesn’t encourage retirement, there’s reason to be concerned. As Deborah Hunt, PhD, RN, associate professor of nursing/course coordinator at the College of New Rochelle and author of The Nurse Professional: Leveraging Your Education for Transition into Practice, notes: “Unfortunately, it’s often the case that hospitals don’t want you if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if no one wants to give it to you.” 

That doesn’t mean all is lost. Landing a position that launches your career is definitely within reach if you’re open to both various settings, willing to expand your skills, and eager to engage in experiences that raise your profile. The good news, at least according to one report, is that the job situation might be improving ever so slightly for nurses in general, but specifically for BSN-trained candidates. In fact, the 2014 annual report of the National Student Nurses Association (NSNA) paints a slightly rosier outlook than any picture since the study’s 2008 launch.

The most recent snapshot, published in the January/February 2015 edition of Dean’s Notes, reflected answers of 8,902 new nurses, most of whom had graduated in spring and summer of 2014. Participants represented students in baccalaureate and accelerated BSN degree programs, along with associate degree programs (ADN) and others.

Among their findings, the authors noted that the majority of all the respondents who answered “yes” to the NSNA question specifically regarding being hired had found work by six months. Also, although hospitals continue to prefer BSN versus ADN-trained nurses—reflecting calls from the 2010 landmark report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health for a more educated workforce—the picture may be improving for all graduates. How so? NSNA’s responses suggest a trifecta of reasons: Fewer RNs are remaining in their jobs beyond retirement, fewer hospitals are closing units, and fewer facilities are instituting hiring freezes than previously. Also, employment opportunities have increased, albeit modestly, in all regions of the country with the West and Northeast still lagging behind Central and Southern states.

As to job targets, hospital medical-surgical (med-surg) units don’t hold the same first-stop sway for most job-seeking new nurses as in years past. But that’s not to say you can’t land work on a unit. In fact, the majority of NSNA’s 2014 study respondents who found employment found it on a med-surg floor. But they’ve also found graduate-friendly first jobs in other hospital specialty areas, albeit on a smaller scale.

In fact, whether or not you see them as your cup of tea, other less-traditional settings—free standing surgery, urgent care, renal dialysis centers, or even those community health clinics—are a viable path into the profession. “Hopefully you’ll find a facility where you will be challenged to keep your skills sharp and learn new things,” says Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, CEO of Nurse Keith Coaching. “There are limits to what you can learn and experience in such venues, but when that’s the work available, I say, ‘Go for it.’ It can be a good place to start for a few years—or you might love it and want to stay.”

Carlson, for instance, ignored friends who warned him that doing anything less than launching his career with a hospital med-surg stint would be professional suicide. Instead, he chose to work in an inner city community health center, a fortuitous move since he’s never been unemployed in the ensuing 19 years. Carlson has fashioned a career in the home health field that merges his role as chief nursing officer/director of nursing for an Albuquerque-based home health agency with additional roles as a health care career coach, nurse podcaster, writer, and blogger. “Nurses entering the profession might have to be a little creative,” he says. “There are plenty of different places. You just have to think outside the box.”

Enhance Your Skills

Indeed, even if you’ve opened your mind to new options, things may not click immediately. That gives you wide berth, however, to pursue activities that flesh out your resume and improve your position. For starters, it’s never a waste of time to bone up on skills germane to your specialty goal. In fact, earning an additional certificate can be relatively quick and easy, based on what you’ve already mastered in nursing school. If you’re interested in a coronary care unit, for instance, taking advanced EKG and biotelemetry training could be a game-changer. “It just shows your dedication and how serious you are with the field,” says Hunt, whose students have demonstrated their willingness to learn new concepts and keep up the basics, even if that means giving flu shots until better things come along.

If you’re energized for a larger educational leap, you’re certainly not alone since a “bright ray of sunshine,” say the NSNA study authors, is the continual shift among new graduates toward earning advanced degrees. (“It bodes well for the discipline.”) In fact, only 9% of those answering the question about returning to school said they wouldn’t be doing so. Of those who responded “yes,” 62% were currently enrolled or planned to enroll in a program by next year with degrees ranging from BSNs to PhDs in their sights.

Even if you’re not ready to delve head long into a new degree program, there are other options, including a hospital residency, for positioning yourself. In fact, a key recommendation of the 2010 Future of Nursing report is to increase the number of new nurses participating in these six-month-to-a-year post-baccalaureate programs. They’re designed specifically to elevate the training and educational levels of a clinical setting’s nurse workforce by offering BSN-graduate—yet novice—nurses the mentoring and continuing education tools necessary to bolster their confidence and skills.

More importantly, a residency can open employment doors, especially if the organization has shaped you into the type of nurse it wants. You might have to win a competitive application process, but if you shine during the transitional training, you may also have the inside track. “Nursing school prepares you to be a generalist,” says Hunt, “but a residency provides a kind of bridge or transition program for additional clinical training and experience. It helps people become more independent over time.”

Volunteer With Enthusiasm

As old as the concept may seem, volunteering is still a good way to energize a resume. Whether you commit time and talent to an organization, agency, or hospital department, you never know whom you’ll meet or what skills you’ll be able to expand. The experience may round out the picture a potential employer has of you. “You want to demonstrate that you’re a go-getter, a contributor, and a team member,” says Carlson. “Anything you can do to exhibit those qualities will help you stand out.”

When he landed his first nursing job in 2013, Jesse M.L. Kennedy, BSN, RN, had just been elected president of the NSNA. With an associate nursing degree in hand, he set his sights on a critical care float position at Eugene, Oregon’s Sacred Heart Peace Health at River Bend, where he now works as a BSN-trained, critical care super pool nurse.

To corral his initial position, however, Kennedy used both his resume and interviews to highlight a variety of plusses in his life. Among them, he pointed out how his student volunteer and other nursing leadership experiences with state, national, and international organizations had already provided immense learning and other opportunities that could be tied directly to a job. For instance, Kennedy founded NSNA’s National Day of Service as well as coordinated two international nursing brigades to Thailand. Since then, he’s not only added his BSN degree to an otherwise stellar resume, but other achievements as well. In addition to his role as a director-at-large for the American Nurses Association board, for instance, he’s the founder of Nurse Connect, a group committed to fostering camaraderie among nurses including mentoring for recent graduates.

Not surprisingly, Kennedy’s advice to other new nurses is to volunteer, join, and lead. By parlaying the resources and professional development opportunities available through ANA’s constituent and state organizations, for instance, he fashioned his own leadership and teamwork styles plus boardroom skills. But as someone who worked in the family construction business until following his heart into nursing, Kennedy encourages new colleagues to rely on all of their life events during the interview.

“Everything you’ve done has made you what you are. Every job you’ve held has provided unique skills,” he says. “Your struggles have made you stronger and your successes have shaped your understanding of the world. Be sure that you utilize all of those experiences.”

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Chris Hinz

Chris Hinz is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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