How caring for others gives you options

Job stability and varied career development await nursing graduates
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The Independent Online

Most clouds have silver linings, and the present atmosphere of gloom over the economy is no exception. Among the beneficiaries of the growing uncertainty in the job market are recruiters in the public sector, where salary potential might not make applicants salivate, but where job security suddenly does.

A striking example is nursing: admissions to the diploma and degree courses that are essential to enter the profession are in rude health.

This phenomenon became clear in September when universities and colleges came back after the summer break to welcome students offered places in the first six months of the year. For example, the managers at Middlesex University became aware that more trainees were arriving than expected.

"We routinely make about 20 per cent more offers of places than we plan to fill, because we always get people who change their minds and don't take them up," says Kay Caldwell, head of the institute of nursing and midwifery. "But this year, very few failed to turn up, so we had 342 students when we'd only planned for 280."

This caused some short term organisational difficulties, but everyone offered a place was accommodated. The story was similar at St Bartholomew's, where the nursing school is part of City University. Applications for nursing courses beginning in September went up 30 per cent on 2007, from around 1,800 to more than 2,400.

And the demographics of those embarking on a nursing career are changing, too. Today, the spread of ages is wide, with the average age of student nurses just under 30, partly explained by the fact that nursing is now attracting more and more career changers. "Sometimes these are people whose job has brought them into contact with nurses or other people in some sort of a care role," says Caldwell, who's recently had former teachers, social workers, a plumber and a fireman go through nurse training.

And there's a similarly diverse intake on nursing courses run by South Bank University, some of whose recent student recruits, at the Whipps Cross hospital site in East London, can be seen on the BBC's current television series The People's Hospital. "We have people who've been accountants and have degrees in science, who now want something a bit more hands-on and people-focused," says Anne Garvey, deputy dean at the university's faculty of health and social care.

One such career switcher, about to complete a postgraduate diploma in adult nursing at City University in London, is Matthew Keane, 30, who ran his own business in media relations for six years before entering nursing. The psychology degree he already had under his belt gave him credits for some of the academic content of the nursing qualification, but, like all nursing students, he's spent around half of his time on practical placements. This journey has taken him to renal and acute stroke units at the Royal London Hospital, and to the cardiac surgery ward at St Bartholomew's, as well as a stint working with the drug and alcohol unit and district nurses attached to Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust.

"Overall my experiences have been fantastic, and I really have become a different person thanks to my training," he says. In January, he hopes to start his first job as a qualified nurse in a ward role at the Royal London.

Like all new recruits, Keane will not be short of career paths to follow. There are more than 640,000 registered nurses in the UK, occupying a diverse roles, and the main nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing, is keen to stress the potential within nursing for developing your career.

"Nursing opens up lots of doors," says Gill Robertson, student adviser at the RCN. "As well as working on the wards, you can go into a lot of clinical specialist areas within hospitals, and there's community nursing, midwifery, occupational health or being a practice nurse at a GP surgery."

Pay can rise sharply too. Although the starting salary is just over £20,000 a year, the rank of ward sister, comfortably achievable within five years, according to Robertson, pays between £29,000 and £38,000. As a matron you earn over £40,000, and the relatively newly introduced nurse consultants can bring in around £90,000. So there is plenty for talented people to aim at.

For professional development in nursing, see special supplement inside