Travel nurse-turned-entrepreneur gears her agency to nomadic nurses who crave job security
On the strength of the nursing shortage, Terri Hill, RN, has traveled from the operating room to the boardroom of her own small but growing company, HC Travelers.
Travel nursing for the Indianapolis surgical nurse began as a lark with a purpose. It was a chance to reconnect with distant family and-at least by one nurse-alleviate California’s desperate need in 1990 for operating room nurses.
With her husband and four children in tow, Hill accepted a six-week assignment to a Los Angeles-area hospital. It was a memorable month and a half of work and leisure that years later would lure her back to travel nursing and a career that she could not have imagined.
After Los Angeles, Hill, 44, resumed her perioperative nursing career in Indianapolis, working for seven years as a staff nurse, nurse manager and director of nursing in a surgery center. “The day I worked 24 hours straight was the day I knew things had to change,” Hill said.
She returned to travel nursing, mostly accepting assignments within 60 miles of her home. Last year, however, she was working in Oakland, Calif., and, while sharing her travel experiences with an RN from Canada, realized that she was not alone in her main frustration with traveling nurse agencies.
“I was never anxious about getting on a plane, going to a hospital on my very first day, going to an apartment that I didn’t know,” Hill said. “The biggest anxiety that I had was, ‘Where’s the next place I’m going to work?’
“I would call my recruiter when I knew my contract was coming to an end, and she wouldn’t return my phone calls. This would happen over and over again. So you go ahead and stay for another month,” Hill said. “I was [in] Bakersfield (Calif.) for six months because my recruiter wouldn’t return my phone calls. And I almost think it was intentional.”
That experience became the driving force behind HC Travelers, which Hill, a graduate of Ball State University, launched this summer. Negotiations were unsuccessful with two staffing agencies that wanted to add travel divisions before a deal for backing went through with Pinpoint Resources, which had just acquired Healthcare Professionals, an Indianapolis nursing agency.
Hill said she needed start-up capital of at least $75,000 to cover salary and expenses for two travel nurses for two months. As an employer, HC Travelers provides health insurance, retirement and other benefits. Travel nurses also can expect contracts to include transportation, housing and a rental car while on assignment, Hill said.
In the first weeks, Hill hired 10 nurses and is screening other applicants. “My goal is not to grow so quickly that I can’t provide good customer service,” she said. In her way of thinking, her nurse-employees are customers every bit as much as the hospitals, long-term care facilities and surgery centers they staff.
“I’ve heard over and over from travel nurses that what they want is somebody who will return their phone calls and be there when they need them,” Hill said. Her days run from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the evening and into the wee hours of the night, she catches up on voice mail and e-mail. Additionally, she continues to work occasional shifts in surgery at St. Francis Hospital & Health Centers in Indianapolis.
At one time, Hill was a perioperative consultant for an Indianapolis nursing agency, developing a now widely used skills checklist and tests for potential operating room nurses and certified surgical technologists. She also recruited nurses, building the agency’s OR nurse database to more than 50 candidates.
Having walked in their shoes, she knows what it takes to succeed as a travel nurse.
“You have to be prepared to walk in from day one, maybe with a five-minute orientation of the unit, and be able to work on your own,” Hill said. Consequently, she recruits RNs with at least one year of experience who adapt well to change.
Medical facilities seek travel nurses usually on one-month contracts as a stopgap for positions they are unable to fill with permanent employees because of the nursing shortage, Hill said. Occasionally, six-week and longer opportunities are available for travelers who cover for nurses out on maternity, family, disability or other leaves.
Because they are ambassadors of the company, Hill said applicants are screened closely for everything from technical and interpersonal skills to whether they have been regularly tardy in previous positions. “We’re looking for the cream of the crop,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter how well I come across to a company and what I do to make them happy. If I’m sending them nurses who are not fitting their needs, they’re going to move on to someplace else,” Hill said.
What she has found is that RNs not yet tied down with family obligations are well-suited to travel. So are older nurses whose children are grown. Perhaps they are divorced, widowed or their husbands are retired or have positions that allow them to work almost anywhere. Hill also encourages nurses to consider, as she did, an initial position where family is nearby for emotional support.
“I liked the one-month assignment,” Hill said. “I can do anything for one month. Then if I liked the facility, I could extend, and if I didn’t, I could move on.”