After losing his job as a United Airlines pilot because of an inner-ear condition, and later getting laid off as a Merrill Lynch financial advisor at the start of the recession, J.B. Allen wanted stability in his third career. He's studying nursing."I didn't want to get laid off again," says Allen, 53. "As long as you're reasonably functional, you can find a job in the nursing field, and probably one that you enjoy and get satisfaction out of."
Allen, who has a degree in education, began a 30-month certificate program in August 2009 at Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing, which shifted to a four-year, bachelor's degree program in August 2010.
He is part of a growing trend of professionals who are turning to nursing as a second or third career. As the demand for nurses continues to rise, and the number of available jobs in many other industries shrinks, nursing is emerging as an appealing employment option for people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds.
"People have learned that it is a stable environment," says Melanie Green, vice president and provost of the nursing school. "The idea of a job guarantee is about as secure as you can get in the United States."
Registered nurses (RNs) constitute the largest health care occupation in the United States, with 2.6 million jobs in 2008 and 581,500 new jobs projected in the next 10 years, among the largest number of new jobs for any occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow by 22 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than average for all occupations, the agency says. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of job openings will result from the need to replace experienced nurses who retire or leave the profession for other reasons.
"Based on the statistics, of course nursing is a good career choice," says Charlotte Oslund, statistician for the job openings and labor turnover survey for the agency. "And the salaries are good. It's also very portable — every small town, every big city and everywhere in between needs RNs."
Richmond-area nursing programs have responded to the increase in nontraditional student enrollment by offering flexible class times, online courses and financial support.
At John Tyler Community College, in addition to traditional nursing programs, students can choose to take the Hybrid Distance Education Track, in which classes are provided in a Web-based format and clinicals are held locally during evenings and weekends, as well as in the daytime.
The VCU School of Nursing offers an accelerated program for students who already have a bachelor's degree in another field. This allows students to earn a bachelor of science in nursing by taking five semesters of intense classroom study, with clinical experience at the VCU Medical Center and other local health care facilities. The applicant pool for the accelerated program has increased by 28 percent from 2009 to 2011, says Susan Lipp, an assistant dean at the nursing school.
According to Green, 49 percent of Bon Secours nursing students are working toward a second degree, almost double the percentage from five to 10 years ago. She says school officials attribute the increase to the need for people like Allen to find more reliable long-term employment as well as the school's transition from non-collegiate diplomas to college degrees.
"We have created a program that will be as good for a student coming fresh out of high school as it would be for a student who's second career or second degree," Green says.
After flying naval transport jets during the first Gulf War and the Bosnian War, and later serving as an airline pilot during the tense period after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Allen says he looks forward to a somewhat calmer lifestyle.
Allen, a warmly animated man with square-rimmed glasses and a salt-and-pepper goatee, commutes an hour and 15 minutes every day from his ranch house in Nottoway County, southwest of Richmond, to attend classes and clinicals. The Sunday- school teacher, father of four and former Boy Scouts leader says he hopes to work in St. Francis Medical Center's pediatric ward.
"I wanted to get into a career that I could do for the rest of my life," Allen says. "And I like to know that I'm doing some good in society. So that's why I'm here."