Pathways to Prosperity: Meet the Growing Demand for Skilled Nurses

The need for skilled nurses is growing exponentially, and there’s an easy pathway for those who want to work while furthering their education. Best of all, it’s available right here in our region.


Nurses never stop learning, and it’s not just because of the ever-evolving nature of health care. It’s also because of the endless job opportunities open to someone with nursing credentials.

Hospitals are the most obvious workplace, but they’re only the beginning. Nursing skills are needed in a wide variety of settings, including health care clinics, home health care, insurance companies, public health departments, schools, rehab facilities, humanitarian aid, the military, cruise ships and American-Indian reservations – to name just a few destinations.

“The vast majority of students come in thinking, ‘I’m going to work in a hospital,’ but then they get exposed to the industry and they go, ‘Oh,’” says Ellen Njolstad-Oksnevad, dean of Nursing and Allied Health at Rock Valley College.

Njolstad-Oksnevad has worked in a variety of settings, starting out with her bachelor’s in nursing. She worked in pediatric hematology/oncology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, the pediatric ICU in Rockford and a pediatric bone marrow transplant unit in Seattle before taking up teaching and earning a master’s degree in nursing. Now, she oversees programs in nursing, respiratory care, dental hygiene, phlebotomy, surgical technology, fire science and fitness/wellness/sport.

Her colleague, Dr. Sandie Soldwisch, brings a similarly rich experience. Now serving as president of Saint Anthony College of Nursing in Rockford, located on the Rock Valley campus, Soldwisch began her education as a diploma nurse, studying at nursing school during weekdays and boning up at her community college on weekends. She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in nursing, in between working in health care practices and teaching.

“I’ve gone the whole route, and I’ve loved it, every step,” she says. “I was able to be a flight nurse in Madison (Wis.). I’ve worked in the OR, the ER, dialysis, home health – just about anywhere you can.”

Nurses begin their education with a heavy dose of the sciences, including anatomy and physiology, chemistry and biology. As their education progresses, they’ll also be exposed to disease management, research and evidence-based practice.

Just as important are the various “soft skills” that accompany nursing. Communication and interpersonal skills are essential when dealing with patients. Adaptability and teamwork are important, as is a solid work ethic. Nursing classes help to hone a student’s abilities.

“We’re trying to get them ready for employment, so we have the same expectations in clinicals and in the classroom as the employer would have in the real world,” says Njolstad-Oksnevad. “You have to be on time. You have to be prepared.”
Leadership is essential as you guide patients through their healing, and critical thinking is a daily reality. Nurses have to make critical decisions in a snap.

“Attention to detail is a must,” says Dr. Kelly Rosenberger, director of the UIC College of Nursing-Rockford. “You want your nurse to be thorough and accurate if she’s giving you medication, right? And, of course, patients and employers appreciate friendly, energetic, eager-to-work, enthusiastic, respectful nurses who bring a positive attitude to what’s sometimes a very stressful work environment.”

The Rockford area provides a full continuum of educational paths, from basic certifications and an associate degree at Rock Valley and Highland Community College to a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate at Saint Anthony or UIC. One of the easiest ways to begin is with Rock Valley’s certified nursing assistant (CNA) course. Not only does it introduce students to the rigors of the field, but it equips students to start working in a health care job.

“There’s a lot to be learned working as a CNA,” says Njolstad-Oksnevad. “It’s like getting paid to learn.”

Njolstad-Oksnevad finds that many students work part-time as a CNA while earning their associate degree. In fact, the average age of Rock Valley nursing students is 30-something, she says.

With the completion of Rock Valley’s nursing associate program, students take the NCLEX-RN test that allows them to work as registered nurses (RN). From there, they may seek a bachelor’s in nursing, completing their work at a four-year school like Northern Illinois University or a specialty school like Saint Anthony or UIC. All three offer special programs aimed specifically at working RNs who want to earn their bachelor’s.

Working nurses with a bachelor’s may also earn advanced degrees including a master’s, a doctor of nursing practice or a Ph.D. in scientific research.

Rosenberger began her career in the late 1980s after earning her bachelor’s in nursing. The following decade, she earned a master’s and became a women’s health nurse practitioner. When she moved to Rockford, she became a certified nurse midwife and earned her Doctor in Nursing Practice at UIC-Rockford. Between managing the local UIC College of Nursing and teaching classes, she also maintains an OB/GYN practice.

“I’ve been a lifelong student, all while working full-time and raising a family,” she says.

Outside of the college campus, there are other ways for those interested in nursing to gain exposure. Rockford Public Schools now offers a clear pathway that introduces students to all variety of health care-related careers, including nursing and medicine. Auburn High School hosts a CNA class that’s open to all RPS students and other area high schools.

Rosenberger suggests students volunteer at local health care clinics or get involved with the local American Red Cross Youth. Of course, young people may also consider job shadowing.

“I’ve taken high school students and let them shadow me at the clinic, so I can show them what I do,” says Rosenberger. “Depending on the day of the week, I do lots of different things.”

Now is an important time for aspiring nurses to join the field. Many working nurses are approaching retirement age, and the sizeable baby boomer generation is beginning to require more health care services than ever before. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing workforce will grow 15 percent by 2026.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects a national shortage of licensed practical nurses by 2030, to the tune of 151,500 jobs nationwide.

“The workforce need is expanding, and it’s expanding exponentially every decade,” says Soldwisch. “But, we’re seeing it increase on a yearly basis, and there are more and more vacancies because people are retiring.”

Rural settings are facing an acute shortage. Through UIC’s unique Rural Health Professions Program, Rosenberger and her colleagues are training the next generation of physicians, nurses and pharmacists for the unique challenges of rural settings.

No matter where they work, nurses can expect a number of perks with their job, including decent salary, job flexibility, job mobility and adjustable work schedules. And even though education is often a prerequisite for career advancement, employers are known to provide tuition assistance or reimbursement.

“They know that not everybody can go and get their bachelor’s right away – that’s a very costly route to jump into,” says Njolstad-Oksnevad. “So, they’ll encourage someone who’s graduated with their associate degree and provide incentives such as tuition assistance for them to complete a bachelor’s within a certain timeframe, maybe three to five years.”

Nursing embraces workers of all ages, with educational opportunities from age 18 to 65 and beyond.

“What many people find is that with nursing you have a lifelong opportunity to serve, so that, as your needs or your physical abilities change, you can still stay in nursing and be very contributory,” says Soldwisch. “I think it’s the best profession in the world, because it changes as you change.”