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‘A brilliant time to come into nursing’

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Job prospects for nurses are considerably brighter than a year ago but competition for posts remains fierce, reports Louise Hunt

What a difference a year makes. While news of the global economy is gloom-laden, ironically, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for this year’s newly qualified nurses.

Most of the 2008 graduates are finding jobs within a few months of qualifying and the majority of these are permanent band five posts, nursing and health leaders tell Nursing Times.

This is in stark contrast to the bleak outlook 12 months ago, when it was taking on average six to eight months for graduates to find permanent posts and, for many, the only way to get a foot in the door was through bank work or working as HCAs.

‘The situation has changed significantly since last year,’ confirms Sian Thomas, deputy director of workforce body NHS Employers.

This is mainly down to most of the NHS being in surplus after widespread job cuts and post freezes, which occurred as the health service tried to climb out of a £1.3bn debt in 2007.

Sian also attributes the improved recruitment situation to an ongoing expansion in services, such as those for managing long-term conditions and public health. ‘There has been a lot of collaborative working on specific issues, such as hospital-acquired infections, which has meant increases in nursing staff. And there is better clarity about care pathways and knowledge of the sort of roles nurses should be doing,’ she says.

In fact, the bust situation has turned into a bit of a boom for newly qualified nurses.

‘We may even see an under-supply of graduate nurses and employers may struggle to recruit. This is already happening with senior nurses and this should filter down to band fives. Some trusts have employed all the nurses they took on placement and are looking for more outside the SHA region,’ says Sian.

Gill Robertson, RCN student adviser agrees that most newly qualified nurses are getting posts. ‘It is definitely quicker than last year. Many have finished with jobs to go to and they appear to be getting substantive contracts, as opposed to part-time work.’
She adds that since the commissioning of student places was devolved to SHAs in 2006 local workforce planning has become much tighter. Consequently, the RCN is unaware of any major regional discrepancies.

Nursing course leaders confirm this picture. Kay Caldwell, head of Middlesex University institute of nursing and midwifery, says: ‘Trusts are recruiting more, and quite a significant number of this year’s graduates have already been offered places. They are much further ahead than this time last year.’

Sue Ford, deputy head of teaching at the University of York department of health sciences, says of the 80% of graduates they have heard from, nearly all have got permanent jobs.

This means there is now much less reliance on interim measures such as bank schemes, where graduates signed up for ad hoc or part-time work as a way of consolidating their training.

‘There isn’t the same issue of trusts having to create ways for nurses to be able to fit in their preceptorships without being able to offer full-time posts,’ explains Gill. ‘I suspect people won’t need to do bank schemes in the same way as last year but some people choose to for the flexibility it offers.’

She adds that trusts still need to work with newly qualified nurses by providing preceptorship schemes. At the moment these are not mandatory but the NMC is looking at the introduction of a formal preceptorship year for newly qualified nurses.

As to where this year’s graduates are finding jobs, Gill predicts most are still following the traditional route of taking their first posts in the NHS adult acute sector, despite the policy shift to the community sector.

‘The community sector is still hesitant to take on newly qualified nurses and it always has been. Some PCTs will take them and some won’t,’ she says.

However, some course leaders are noticing that more graduates are finding work in primary care. Caia Frances, senior lecturer at the University of West of England, says a third of this year’s cohort is looking for jobs in the community. ‘In my specialism of respiratory care, there are certainly a lot more community opportunities for graduates than before.’

Kay adds that trusts are working on ways for newly qualified nurses to work their way up through new services such as long-term conditions management and it is expected that more graduates will go into polyclinics when they are established.

However, graduates are warned not to be complacent because competition is still fierce, particularly for rotational posts that have become more popular since clinical placements have become limited.

To improve their competitive advantage graduates can become more knowledgeable about health policy, advises Caia.

‘Being a nurse is about engaging in policies but it surprises me that students aren’t more aware of the policies that will affect
them. They should be aware so that they are not caught off the hoof in interviews.’

The future for next year’s graduates is likely to be influenced by the review of pre-registration training that is being conducted by the NMC.

Sian says: ‘Community is one of the big areas in the review and the chief nursing officer wants nurses to go straight into the community, so we should be preparing nurses at pre-registration. The old attitude about nurses having to work in acute hospitals first has to change.’

Course leaders are also cautiously optimistic the recent trials have not affected long-term recruitment, although the number of places has decreased.

Kay says: ‘We have seen an increase in applications for this September. Last year there was a lot of negative attention but I think people are seeing there are good opportunities for careers in nursing.’

Making a good impression on placement

Jeannie Jones qualified in September 2007 from the University of Chester and is now working on an acute medical and endocrinology ward at Leighton Hospital, Cheshire.

She had decided to take both her second and last placements on the ward, having realised she fitted in well with the team and enjoyed the area of work, even though she had intended to work in sexual health.

Having caught the eye of her ward manager, she was asked to apply for a post but she says it was not offered to her on a silver platter. ‘Thirty people applied for the job – I knew I had to work for it,’ she says.

At a time when many of her peers faced bleak employment prospects, Jeannie puts her success down to demonstrating a good work ethic. ‘It’s important to portray yourself well on placement. There’s a big difference between inexperience and apathy. It’s best to say: “I don’t know but I’m keen to learn” and show you’re a good potential employee.

‘The ward manager provides one of your references, so if you’re not applying yourself you won’t get a good one.’

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