Competition to hire nurses in California is so intense that some headhunters routinely make cold calls to nursing stations at rival hospitals, desperate for recruits.
Others are sending out direct-mail pitches that read like time-share come-ons. Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, for example, offers nurses a $200 gift card just to come in and take a look around. And in one extreme case, a nurse-staffing firm is using a $10-million Newport Beach mansion as a lure.
Scrambling to comply with California's first-of-its-kind law mandating 1 nurse for every 5 patients in most wards starting this year, hospitals are in a hiring frenzy reminiscent of Silicon Valley's lust for engineers in 1999. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month dropped his fight to suspend the law, leaving hospitals to cope with a labor shortage that is expected to grow for decades.
One hospital staffing agency, in an extreme example of creative recruiting, has turned to reality TV. It invited six nurses from around the country to work in local hospitals for 13 weeks while living in a mansion not far from the scene of MTV's hit reality show "Laguna Beach." The result is a show designed to tantalize nurses around the country with the joys of nursing in Southern California.
The show highlights the lives of "travelers," U.S.-trained nurses who bounce from hospital to hospital on 13-week contracts, following the sun, ski season and shifting staffing needs. The prevalence of travelers is one indication of the degree to which the nursing shortage has put power in the hands of employees.
Last year, 11,000 travelers moved to California from other states, along with about 3,700 foreign-trained nurses, according to a study this year by UC San Francisco.
"There's a limited supply of qualified RNs out there, and there's just a huge demand," said Evan Burks, executive vice president of Comforce Corp., a Woodbury, N.Y.-based staffing company. "As California hospitals have to meet those ratios, there is going to be a greater and greater push to bring traveling nurses from other parts of the country. It could make shortages elsewhere worse."
Nurse wages in California are the highest in the nation, up 23% over the last seven years to an average of more than $33 an hour. In competitive areas, such as Orange County, nurses can earn $30 an hour right out of school. Travelers make even more - as much as $60 an hour, on top of housing, meals, benefits and, often, signing or completion bonuses.
The shortage is expected to worsen as nurses - whose average age is nearing 50 - retire in waves. Those retirements will be in full swing just as the oldest baby boomers are reaching their 70s, a milestone that is expected to put a crushing demand on hospitals. With California's continuing population growth, the number of unfilled nursing jobs could exceed 122,000 by 2030, according to the UC San Francisco study.
And although nursing schools have succeeded in attracting students, a new problem has emerged: a nationwide shortage of nursing teachers. Today, a nurse with the experience and advanced degree necessary to teach can make two or three times as much as a hospital nurse manager.
"If the pink slip doesn't fit,