For those in the area: PBCC gearing up to offer four-year nursing degrees - South Florida

A four-year nursing degree may soon be available at Palm Beach Community College as the school flexes its bachelor's degree-granting muscle to meet workforce needs.

School trustees voted last month to seek state permission to offer a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

PBCC offers a two-year degree in the profession, but to earn a bachelor's degree, students must transfer to Florida Atlantic University or another school with a four-year program.

Magdala Ray, dean of baccalaureate studies at PBCC, said the nursing program could open in fall 2011 or spring 2012, pending approval by the Florida Department of Education.

"It's about a two-year process," Ray said. "We have to make sure we have the proper faculty on board."

According to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, nursing is a high-growth area for jobs.

A recent agency report found that through 2016 there will be 2,346 average annual openings in Florida for licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses.

Annual openings for registered nurses are expected to be even higher at 6,613.

While licensed practical, vocational and registered nurses require two-year degrees, nurses with bachelor's degrees also will be needed, especially as Baby Boomers retire.

"We certainly know there will be a long-term nursing shortage in Florida," said Marlaine Smith, associate dean for academic programs in FAU's nursing program. "Baby Boomers are approaching the age where they will need health care, but also many nurses are approaching retirement. That's going to produce a very severe shortage."

FAU's nursing college usually has too many applicants for its traditional nursing program, which admits about 30 students each year. An accelerated program for students who have a bachelor's degree in another area can accept 40 students.

FAU has as many as 500 spots, however, for community college transfer students who have earned their two-year degree as a registered nurse.

"We don't have limited space in that program, so we could see ourselves in competition with PBCC, but I prefer to see it as a cooperative position," Smith said.

Despite workforce estimates, only 30 percent of this spring's nursing class at FAU had jobs when they graduated -- a sign, Smith said, of the struggling economy and patients' delays in meeting health-care needs.

Smith still predicts a future need for nurses. Some students are just more comfortable in a community college setting and may choose to continue their education at PBCC if it offers the bachelor's degree, she said.

Plus, the college's program will start small with just 30 students.

PBCC will begin offering classes for its first bachelor's degree this fall. Nearly 500 people have applied for the program, which trains students for managerial positions in public safety, business and health administration.

"It shows there really is a desire out there for more job training," Ray said.