Two and a half years into pandemic, Baton Rouge’s nursing market finally cools down

The Advocate

After 2½ years of COVID-induced pandemonium, the Baton Rouge-area labor market for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurse practitioners seems to have cooled off a bit.

Job postings for RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners in the region fell to 1,257 in September, the lowest total since November 2020, according to data available from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners form the bulk of the U.S. health care workforce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Among Baton Rouge health care employers, total job postings for those positions held above the 1,600 level from April 2021 to April. Postings went back up to 1,667 in July but have steadily fallen each month since then.

Postings for RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners were as low as 1,050 in the Baton Rouge metro area back in November 2019, right before the pandemic gripped the globe. They shot up to a pandemic-high of 2,240 in March 2020 and stayed above the 2,000 plateau for another two months before falling the rest of the year. The total surged back to 1,916 in July 2021 as the delta variant of the coronavirus swept through Louisiana.

The figures show the Baton Rouge area’s nursing workforce has found some stability after it was pushed to the brink by repeated waves of coronavirus infections. The onslaught forced hospitals to turn to travel nurses to fill the gaps.

However, officials cautioned that nurses are still sorely needed, especially with labor markets nationwide in flux — not to mention that COVID-19 “is still here,” as Jennifer Manale, Baton Rouge General’s chief nursing officer, put it.

“The demand on nursing was a lot during that time. You saw a lot of postings for us,” Manale said. “Now we’re getting back to those baseline staffing levels.”

Finding success amid challenges

Manale said demand is down for the ICU, which is reflected in Baton Rouge General’s job postings. However, finding bedside nurses across the hospital is still a challenge.

Baton Rouge General has ramped up its recruiting efforts, including visiting markets such as northwest Louisiana and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to connect with nursing students, Manale said.

The hospital system is also trying to strengthen its retainment efforts as retirements and departures for positions with better hours remain an issue. Manale noted she left a nighttime position at Woman’s Hospital decades ago for a daytime job at Baton Rouge General.

“There are so many other job opportunities out there for this younger nursing staff,” she said. “There are job openings out there for people that can work from home. It’s just (challenging) trying to get them at the bedside.”

Ed Halphen, Woman’s Hospital’s vice president of human resources, said his institution has noted an increase in nursing hires and a decrease in open positions in the last year. Our Lady of the Lake officials have seen a “positive increase in filling open nursing positions over the last several months,” according to a company statement.

Officials from Woman’s, Baton Rouge General and the Lake touted their respective companies’ culture and compensation and benefits packages as reasons for recent hiring success.

“Our recruiting team and hiring managers have worked hard to identify new ways to recruit and new talent pools to tap into,” Halphen said in a statement.

By the numbers

The decrease in job postings is being driven by a drop in demand for RNs across the region.

Until August, RN listings for the Baton Rouge area held above the 1,000 threshold for all but two months of the pandemic, including a high of 1,771 in March 2020. After a dip to 911 in November 2020, RN postings went back above the 1,000 level in February 2021 and hit 1,364 five months later.

The RN total finally fell to 894 in August of this year and 777 in September, the lowest such mark since November 2019.

Meanwhile, postings for LPNs and nurse practitioners have fluctuated during the pandemic.

Baton Rouge employers posted 88 nurse practitioner listings in March 2020 but 27 by February 2021. Demand grew to 106 postings by October 2021 but fell the next three months.

After more ups and downs, nurse practitioner postings have been above 100 since May and totaled 126 in August and 114 in September.

Local health care employers had 200 LPN postings in November 2019, but that total more than doubled to 408 by May 2020. Like RNs and nurse practitioners, LPN postings dipped in late 2020 and early 2021 but swelled back to 459 in August 2021. After more ebbs and flows, LPN postings hit a recent high of 431 in May but fell to 366 in September.

On the flip side, demand is growing nationally for RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners. Total postings for those positions across the country have grown from more than 555,000 in March 2020 to more than 815,000 in August, according to BRAC data.

Working together

Jake Polansky, BRAC’s manager of economic and policy research, noted that total nursing jobs in the Baton Rouge region have grown by 9% since 2019, compared with 1% decreases in Lafayette and New Orleans. Job postings for RNs, LPNs and nurse practitioners in the New Orleans metro area have held above the 4,000 mark since May after seven months in a row below that level, according to data from Greater New Orleans Inc.

Polansky touted partnerships between local hospital networks and educational institutions, such as Baton Rouge Community College and Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, as a driver behind the region’s health care workforce growth.

He said the organizations have worked to increase nursing school enrollment and create streamlined programs that can boost worker skills, such as BRCC’s partnership with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and Baton Rouge Clinic to help medical assistants become LPNs.

“That could be an indication that these programs that get students in and out quicker and into the workforce quicker are seeing more demand here,” Polansky said.

Though rising wages are a standard driver for increased workforce participation, Polansky said wages for health care positions “aren’t quite going up as much in Baton Rouge as they are in other places.” However, wages for LPNs grew “much higher than the national average,” he said. “It looks like wages alone aren’t being the motivating factor,” he added.

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