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San Diego hospitals have a need for more health care workers, especially experienced nurses

A new analysis found there are just under 60,000 nursing vacancies across California, making it one of the most in-demand jobs in the state. San Diego County hospitals are feeling the pinch, and it is not just nurses that are needed. The American Hospital Association reports an older health care workforce, a surge in retirements and pandemic burnout is driving a nationwide caregiver shortage.

“There are staffing shortages in health care regardless of what COVID did to us — but COVID exacerbated it,” said Doug Levine, UC San Diego Health’s director of talent acquisition.

Levine said UCSD Health has just over 200 open nursing positions — about a 7% vacancy rate. He said there is also a need for occupational therapists, surgical technicians and other support staff including food service workers and custodians.


“I’m seeing our inpatient population grow so much,” Levine said. “I can tell you that last year, in calendar year 2022, we increased the size of our nurses and medical staff by 6% — that’s huge — but my patient population grew by more.”

Levine said when it comes to recruitment their options include sign-on bonuses and covering relocation costs. The San Diego market comes with its own challenges though.

“The fact that San Diego has some of the highest inflation rates in the country doesn't help the situation — as well as the housing market,” said Dr. Nicholas Holmes, chief operating officer at Rady Children’s Hospital. “So it makes it really challenging to recruit individuals that don’t have close ties to San Diego.”

Holmes said Rady’s has a need for nurses, with openings 2-3% higher than expected. Respiratory therapists and laboratory staff are also on that list. Some pediatric health workers require specialized training to work with kids, limiting the number of potential applicants. Holmes said they use incentives like sign-on bonuses on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s only seven children's hospitals in the state of California so that same specialized nurse or technologist — if they want to be in California — is looking at all the children’s hospitals,” Holmes said. “So we’re competing at all levels and all regions.”


Scripps Health officials said a nationwide shortage is impacting their recruitment. Eric Cole, corporate senior vice president of human resources said they have a 8% vacancy for nurses, which amounts to about 340 positions. He said nurses are most needed in the intensive care, surgical services and emergency departments.

“I'll put those at the top three," Cole said.

Imaging technicians, pharmacy technicians and food nutrition specialists are also in high demand, Cole said. He sees what he calls a distribution issue, too.

“We’re 24/7 — so we have day, evening and night shifts — so there are plenty that may want to work the day shift but not necessarily the evening and night shifts,” Cole said.

With the high cost of living in San Diego Scripps targets health care workers that have ties to the region — whether someone went to school here or maybe has family nearby. Cole said recruitment expands to the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle areas, with less luck on the east coast.

The American Hospital Association reports nationally there are enough medical or nursing students graduating to keep up with demand, but Cole said that is not necessarily the case for nurses in San Diego.

“We actually have more new grad nurses than we can place,” Cole said. “Our concern is how do we get more in the pipeline and then how do we get them the experience and then ramp them up based on their experience to match what’s leaving the organization.”

At UC San Diego Health, Levine said there are enough newly graduated nurses to fill all their open positions, but he said hospitals will also look for more seasoned applicants.

“We love our new grad nurses — new grad nurses are one of our strategies,” Cole said. “You want a mix of experienced and new — so the new get trained.”

Both UC San Diego Health and Scripps officials said they have been working to reduce the number of travel nurses and contract employees at hospitals. Contractors were in high demand during the worst of the pandemic and became very expensive.

Kaiser Permanente San Diego officials said their registered nurse vacancy rate is below national benchmarks, but they too are impacted by recent trends in health care.

“The health care workforce has dramatically changed over the past three years resulting in staffing challenges seen nationwide,” said Jennifer Dailard, spokesperson for Kaiser locally. “Kaiser Permanente is not immune to this trend.”

The American Hospital Association is working with lawmakers to try and address the shortages in healthcare. One of their requests is for more nursing workforce development programs and investments in hospital training time. The organization reports workforce costs can make up more than half of a hospital's budget.