Nursing Shortage Over, For Now

Jaimie Duplass – Fotolia.com

A study indicates that the nursing shortage is over, but that it will likely come roaring back. By 2020, it might be more difficult than ever to fill nursing vacancies.

An article in the Detroit News indicates that the the number of full-time nurses grew by about 386,000 from 2005 to 2010, according to a recent study. And that was during a time of relatively high unemployment overall. This increase in the nursing workforce was the largest of any five-year period in the last forty years.

The study author, Douglas Staiger, says, “Probably for the first time in memory there were actually reports of nurses having difficulty finding jobs and reports from hospitals of almost a glut of nurses.”

Starting in about 1998, nurses were leaving the profession faster than they were entering it, causing a nursing shortage. Nurses complained of being overworked, underpaid, and unable to provide good patient care. In an attempt to stem the tide and attract more people to nursing, hospitals offered more benefits and perks like signing bonuses, scholarships and tuition reimbursement.

Those efforts paid off as the number of people who graduated from entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs more than doubled to 161,540 in 2010 from 72,986 in 2000, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing based in Washington.

The gains continued unabated even as the recession began in 2007 as nurses who had left the work force or were employed part-time returned to full-time work to shore up family finances, said Staiger.

As the economy improves, and the mostly married, female work force quit, reduce their working hours to part time or reach retirement age, a shortage of nurses is expected again. The renewed need for nurses will hit just as demand for health care increases as more Americans gain medical insurance under provisions of the U.S. health-care law that goes into effect in 2014, Staiger said.

“We had suspected that the supply of nurses is counter cyclical, when the economy goes down, nurses work more, pile back into work in part because the jobs are there,” he said. “The concern was this was a temporary surge into the labor market, a bubble, and as soon as the economy recovered, a lot of nurses would exit and we would be back and the shortage would emerge.

“Going ahead into 2020 and beyond, there are concerns that the kind of shortages we’ve had will be larger than what we’ve seen,” Staiger said.

The nursing work force is now expected to add about 109,000 full-time positions from 2010 to 2015, as the economy improves and by 227,000 if the economic downturn persists, the authors said.

The authors used data from a workforce model to compare the U.S. unemployment rate with the difference between the actual size of the nurse workforce and the model’s expected size over 40 years. They were then able to project what effect the recession had on the workforce in 2005 and 2010 and what effects an improving economy would have beyond 2010.

They found that from 2010 and 2015, 118,000 nurses will stop working full time as the economy grows.

“The nursing shortage is likely to re-emerge and nursing is going to continue to be a good occupation choice for young people,” Staiger said.

The current median age of nurses is 46 years, while the largest group is in their 50s, according American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Polly Bednash, chief executive officer of the group, said she’s worried today’s report will lead policy makers to think they don’t need to invest in the nursing field.

“We need to put all the support we can into keeping the pipeline robust,” she said in a March 19 telephone interview.

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