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Spring 2005 l Capital University Journal
Prepped and ready
Co-op program helps meet need for new nurses
By Frank Whitlatch

Photo: Ground Breaking
Unlike many nursing students across the country, Suzanne McGee’s work experience offers her a measure of stability. Instead of the usual rushing from one clinical placement to another, she’s been working at Kaiser Permanente in Roseville for the last six months through Sac State’s unusual cooperative education program in nursing. She gets academic credit for paid work in the Intensive Care Unit, exactly the type of work she hopes to do after graduation.

“It’s giving me extra hours of experience, as well as units and a salary,” McGee says. “I remember getting my first paycheck and saying, ‘Wow, I get all that experience and they pay me, too.’”

It’s an opportunity that many Sac State students enjoy—the University has the largest cooperative education program in the state.

But it was no simple matter setting it up for future nurses. The state Board of Nursing had to give special permission for the program, which allows students to spend more than a year with one nursing unit practicing different types of skills.

The combination of paid, practical experience has kept the program going strong for nearly a decade.

And in recent years, as the nursing shortage in the state and nation has grown worse, the program has seen an explosion in popularity. There have generally been about 15 nursing co-op students each semester, but by 2004 there were 78.

That’s good for the students and the hospitals, says Bonnie Raingruber, the Sac State nursing professor who started the program and still serves as its academic coordinator. She’s supported by Deborah Case of the University’s cooperative education program, who works with the employers and provides assistance to students—including orientation, help with resumes and guidance on applying for positions.

“The students really get a sense of belonging,” Raingruber says. “I think they develop skills better when they have more time to practice in the same place. It makes them more confident. And for hospitals, this is a great recruiting tool. Students get to know them, and they get to know the students.”

Hospitals need all the recruiting help they can get. The United States is in the midst of a nursing shortage that’s only expected to get worse as Baby Boomers get older, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Nearly three-quarters of hospital CEOs say their facility is short of nurses, and the U.S. Department of Labor has identified registered nursing as the top occupation for job growth through 2012.

In California, new rules designed to improve care will reduce the nurse-to-patient ratio in coming years, which is expected to make the state’s nursing shortage even worse.

Raingruber says some local hospitals have become so enamored with the co-op program that they have staff assigned specifically to support the program. There are more requests for students than the University can meet.

To get into the program, students must show they’re highly competent in the practical skills they learn on campus and during clinical rotations. They also need strong recommendations from professors.

Students work primarily at large hospitals–UC Davis Medical Center, Sutter Health and Kaiser are the largest employers–but there are also some placements with private physicians and clinics. They’re paid $13-$16 an hour and usually work 8 to 20 hours a week. And perhaps most importantly, they’re able to independently carry out nursing skills after they’ve demonstrated competence–including giving medications, doing cauterizations and giving injections.

That’s much different than completing more than a dozen clinical rotations in a 16-week semester, which all nursing students do to get the required practical experience.

McGee, the nursing student, says that while the rotations were definitely helpful, they were also a bit jolting.

“Just about the time you think ‘I’m really starting to get this down’–then you’re done and on to something else,” she says. “This program offers me a very safe way to practice under supervision. It builds your confidence.”

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