Their fellow students call them "Mom and Pop."
Both 40 years old, Lena Gambill and Bob Mitchell are among the first-year nursing students at Shawnee State University, in the Ohio river city of Portsmouth nearly 100 miles southeast of here. In an Appalachian region that was already struggling with double-digit unemployment before the national recession hit, they both considered a nursing career their best bet for a secure future.
"The reason I decided to do it is no matter where we go, no matter what happens economy-wise, this is an occupation I can count on and I can take with me," said Gambill, a mother of three who had been a full-time teacher's aide.
"There is always something you can do with nursing," agreed Mitchell, a former state prison guard.
A field that has long seen staff shortages is getting another look from people who are out of work, fear they soon could be or need to replace a laid-off spouse's income.
But there are barriers to overcome, from getting the needed education to meeting the profession's sometimes exhausting demands.
"The most difficult thing has been budgeting between my family and schooling to get to my goal," said Gambill, estimating she spends 40 hours a week studying and doing clinical work in a two-year program to become a registered nurse.
Industry experts say the recession is reducing nursing vacancy rates because more nurses are delaying retirement, moving from part-time to full-time status for the extra income, or coming back from retirement.
But plenty of need remains, especially as the Baby Boom generation ages and requires more health care. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected more than 1 million nursing openings over the 10-year period ending in 2016.
Among the benefits of becoming a nurse, besides employment security, is yearly pay that usually ranges in hospitals from around $50,000 into six figures, depending on experience and skills. Nursing offers flexible scheduling that can include three-day weeks (12-hour shifts) and weekends-only positions. And workplaces are as varied as physicians' offices, nursing homes and health-related corporate jobs.
The bureau also projects strong job growth for some faster routes into health care. They include licensed practical nursing; the degree takes about a year to earn, and jobs usually pay about two-thirds what registered nurses earn. Growth also is projected for lower-paying jobs such as home care aides, which do not require college study.
Universities and nursing schools have been scrambling to keep up with growing interest, but they face a shortage of qualified instructors — in most cases, nurses can earn much more working in a hospital than teaching.
At Shawnee State, with about 200 nursing students, twice that number of qualified applicants get turned away each year, said Mattie Burton, who heads the nursing program. Of the first-year students, about 15 percent each year don't make it through a demanding combination of classes, clinical studies and work.
"We have people who made straight A's coming out of high school who find it's too difficult," Burton said. She said nurses need good a background in sciences such as biology and chemistry and in mathematics.
Some students are unprepared to see illness and pain up close on a regular basis.
"They haven't had experience with sick people like that before and decide that's not what they want to do," Burton said.
Debbe Endres, who heads human resources for the Cincinnati-based Health Alliance's five hospitals, said nurses must work well in teams, be respectful, and set high standards for themselves and for care. The job can be physically and emotionally demanding, and doesn't lend itself to a 9-to-5 mentality.
"It's 24-7," she said.
"For anyone considering nursing, my best recommendation is to sit down and talk with a nurse, find out what are the positive aspects, and what are the challenging aspects," said Endres, adding that some places offer job shadowing for those thinking about the field.
As for advancement, some employers will underwrite additional training and education for nurses who commit to stay.
Gambill will pay for her two years of school with some $15,000 in education loans. Her husband's income as an ironworker disqualifies her from grants, she said.
And unlike many young students, she and her husband are busy raising children — ages 11, 14 and 15. Her mother-in-law has pitched in on housework and helped teach the kids how to handle more of their own daily needs.
"Without a good support system, this wouldn't work," Gambill said.
Mitchell's wife is also in health care, working full time as a phlebotomist. They have two children, ages 9 and 12.
"There's lots of times I have to go to the library and study to get quiet, a lot of times I don't see my family," Mitchell said, saying his wife has accepted the extra burden while he earns his degree.
Mitchell, who had first aid training and experience as a prison guard, said he thinks that having had children who get sick or injured is a plus in nursing studies.
"My life experiences help out," he said.
Mitchell stands out on campus. A 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound bald man who likes interacting with people, he also sees a lot to like in nursing.
"The variety — it challenges your mind. You have to be observant," he said. "You have to earn your pay, but it is fulfilling. It makes you feel good to help somebody else."
On the Net:
American Nurses Association http://www.nursingworld.org/
American Association of Colleges of Nursing: http://www.aacn.nche.edu/
Bureau of Labor Statistics/Career Guide to Health Care: http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs035.htm