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Unfilled pink-collar jobs threaten service cuts

Congress seeks incentives to address shortages of nurses, teachers and librarians

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Longer lines to check out books at the public library. More untrained teachers in the classroom. Less hands-on care for hospital patients.

Such challenges are just the beginning of the difficulties that Americans will face as employee shortages worsen in professions formerly dominated by women, labor experts say. Shortages of nurses, teachers and librarians already are being felt in some parts of the nation and are likely to become more widespread in the next decade.

While shortages in these fields aren't a new phenomenon, a recent flurry of efforts seeks to address the problem:

Congress is trying to work out a compromise on separate House and Senate bills that would offer loan forgiveness and scholarships to those who choose to go into nursing. There's also separate legislation under consideration that would strictly limit the practice of mandatory overtime for hospital nurses, a move that nurses have been promoting for years as a way to greatly improve working conditions.

Johnson & Johnson has just launched a $20 million, two-year campaign to try to interest more women and men in nursing. The campaign kicked off in January with a series of splashy TV ads played during prime time to the millions of people watching the Winter Olympics.

To boost the decreasing number of public librarians, President Bush has proposed spending $10 million next year in a new federal recruitment effort. Much of the money would go for librarian scholarships. The American Library Association has begun its own effort to recruit non-librarians already on library staffs.

For the past several years, federal, state and local officials have been working to cut red tape and make it easier for prospective teachers -- especially those entering teaching as a second career -- to get training they need to enter the classroom as quickly as possible. In 1983, only eight states had such alternative certification programs; today, 45 states have them.

Perhaps the most important and immediate solution to the recruitment crisis in these professions is increasing salaries, experts say. But they stress that it's not the only answer.

"Increasing the pay in these professions would make a real difference" in attracting new applicants, said Assistant Professor Julie Whittaker at Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Policy. "But there's also more involved. When we talk about occupations, we say there are two forms of compensation: dollar compensation and the things that are a little harder to put a price tag on, things like prestige and job flexibility. If a job doesn't have the right combination of those, people just won't go into it."

Sumru Erkut, associate director of the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, agrees.

"If you pay more money, more men will come and more women will come," Erkut said. "But you also need to create better working conditions. For example, where I live, many nurses are fighting against mandatory overtime."

Karen Nussbaum, director of the AFL-CIO's Working Women Department, said the recently stepped-up efforts to recruit more nurses, librarians and teachers may attract more people to those fields, but that's not enough to ease the shortages.

"These recruitment efforts don't address the core question of why people are leaving these fields," she said. "The working conditions, especially for nurses and teachers, are extremely difficult."

The story of how the shortages in these fields occurred is a familiar one. Just a few decades ago, women who aspired to a professional career were limited to a few fields, including teaching, nursing and librarianship. Although the pay often was low and the hours long, these jobs were sought after by women eager to enter the work force in the 1950s and '60s.

The women's movement bulldozed that narrow career path, however, opening the way for women to be just about anything they chose to become. Women could be not only nurses but also doctors. As well as being teachers, they could be administrators. Librarians could become corporate researchers.

Most importantly, they could make more money.

"It's basic economics," said Sarah Banda Purvis, an author and consultant on workplace issues. "Women saw the opportunities to earn more money, get better benefits, be accorded a greater degree of professional respect and prestige, etc."

As women with college degrees have headed into more lucrative professions, the ranks of nurses, teachers and librarians have grown both thinner and older. Still, the vast majority of employees in all three fields continues to be female: 92 percent of nurses, 79 percent of librarians, and 73 percent of teachers, according to the latest statistics.

The coming shortage is reflected starkly in numbers released by the associations that represent each field. The American Nurses Association, for example, states that the average age of nurses is over 40 and estimates that there will be a shortage of 400,000 nurses by 2020 -- just as millions of elderly baby boomers will need more medical care.

Librarians already have one of the highest median ages -- 47 -- of any occupation. The American Library Association estimates that one in four librarians will reach retirement age in 2009.

Various estimates show a shortage of 500,000 to 2.2 million teachers over the next decade. It is especially acute in urban schools and in fields such as math, science, special education and bilingual education.

Median annual salaries for all three fields are in the mid-$40,000s. That compares with median salaries of more than $58,000 for engineers, $65,000 for physicians and $70,000 for pharmacists, according to the latest figures published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's common knowledge the pay scales in historically female occupations haven't kept pace with other professions and industries," Purvis said. "If the compensation and incentives for entering these fields are enhanced, more people more than likely will become interested.

"Also, by enhancing compensation and incentives, a higher caliber of individual will probably be attracted to these profession."

But John W. Berry, president of the American Library Association, said money isn't the only reason that people are attracted to jobs. For example, he noted that some librarians who have left the field for more lucrative jobs in information technology are now out of work.

"Corporate libraries are the first to be hit with layoffs in a recession," Berry said. "That usually doesn't happen so quickly in the public sector. So there's a trade-off: pay versus job security."

Meanwhile, experts say shortages of nurses, teachers and librarians could be eased -- or even erased -- if recruiters could boost the number of men entering these professions.

"Based on my experience and observations in the workplace, the entry of males into such traditionally female fields ultimately will lead to higher salaries, improved benefits, more respect, etc." Purvis said.

The AFL-CIO's Nussbaum didn't hold out much hope, however, for efforts to persuade large numbers of men to become nurses, librarians or teachers.

"It's just not worth it to them," she said. "The pay is too low, and the work is too hard. And the experience so far is that it just hasn't happened.

"It has tipped much more in the direction of women entering male jobs," Nussbaum said. "There's more incentive to do that, and the increase in women in these jobs in a generation has been astonishing."

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