Even amid budget pressures, the economic downturn has been beneficial for Howard County General Hospital in one key area: nurse staffing levels. During boom times, the Columbia-based facility, like many hospitals around the country, suffered from lingering nurse vacancy rates that required temporary workers to fill in. But since the recession, the hospital has eliminated vacancies and increased the number of full-time permanent nurses. That's helped the hospital's bottom line, allowing it to expand services that generate revenue at a time when operating profits and investments are struggling to rebound. The reason: Retired nurses suffering financially -- perhaps from having lost jobs in second careers or having spouses who did -- returned to one of the precious few sectors that is hiring in large numbers. Meanwhile, part-timers applied for full-time positions and those on the verge of retiring postponed their plans.