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Graduating from college at a time of high unemployment is stressful. But you might be surprised to hear about one of the groups that's especially stressed. As Ashley Gross of member station WBEZ in Chicago explains, these students have a degree that was touted as a golden ticket to employment.

ASHLEY GROSS: Anna Lendabarker is just now hitting the job market after studying for four years to be a nurse. Everyone told her a nursing degree would give her lots of choices and let her do whatever she wanted. Now she's discovering that's not really the case.

Ms. ANNA LENDABARKER: I do feel a little let down at this point, when searching for these jobs, and you look, and you say you need six years of experience. It's like: This is just getting kind of ridiculous.

GROSS: Wait: Haven't people been talking about a nursing shortage for years? Haven't all those English majors been kind of kicking themselves, thinking: I should have gone to nursing school? Turns out the situation is a bit more complicated.

Rhys Gibson graduated with a nursing degree in spring 2009 from the University of Illinois Chicago. He didn't land a job until that December. At a recent career workshop for graduating seniors, he described his feelings.

Mr. RHYS GIBSON (Nurse): I mean I thought I was the cat's meow and everything because, you know, I'm an African-American guy coming out of here. I was waiting for the red carpet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: I had the grades. I had the experience to an extent but not the practical experience as a nurse working on the floor.

GROSS: Since 1998, there's been a shortage of nurses, but then came the recession, and many older nurses set to retire decided to keep working instead.

And as people lost their jobs and benefits, hospital visits decreased. Patricia Lewis is associate dean at the UIC College of Nursing.

Ms. PATRICIA LEWIS (Associate Dean, UIC College of Nursing): We've also seen a lot of nurses with experience who might have been working part-time come back to work at a point in time when they might not ordinarily have done that because spouses lost positions.

GROSS: So recent nursing graduates now face a double whammy: more competition for fewer jobs. All this comes as the number of nurses graduating with bachelor's degrees more than doubled in the past decade. But experts say be patient.

Peter Buerhaus is a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who researches the labor market for nurses. He says the shortage is going to come back. Baby boomers will need more health care, and the nursing workforce is aging.

Professor PETER BUERHAUS (Vanderbilt University Medical Center): We have an estimated 900,000 nurses who are in their 50s. That's more than a third of our workforce. Many of these RNs will reach retirement age and leave the market. So we have got to sort of keep our eyes on the longer term.

GROSS: But Buerhaus admits the timing is pretty lousy for new nurses now. Anna Lendabarker is realizing she may not get her ideal job working on a neonatal intensive-care unit.

While going to school, she's been working at a small community hospital as a nurse assistant, and she hadn't planned to try to get a permanent job there.

Ms. LENDABARKER: Hopefully I could work there, but they're slow, too. So it's kind of difficult to, like, approach anyone in management saying do you need another nurse when they're canceling nurses left and right for shifts.

GROSS: UIC's Patricia Lewis says there are jobs out there: in clinics and long-term care facilities, and outside big cities. And she's confident new nurses will find work once they adjust their expectations.

Ms. LEWIS: I think there's disappointment, and there's anxiety. I think that we have been able to assure them that really the prospects for their future careers are very good, and I do think that they believe it. They just wish it would come faster.

GROSS: So if you're an eight-year-old out there considering a job in nursing, you may just hit the sweet spot of that big shortage expected by 2025.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Chicago.

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