The COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed an already short supply of registered nurses (RN) in the U.S. and drove many from the field. In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS), the American Nurses Association (ANA) reported that the increasing nursing shortage in 2021 will have long-term repercussions for the healthcare system and national health. The American Journal of Medical Quality confirmed this reality with its 2018 projected shortage of 154,018 RNs by 2020 and 510,394 RNs by 2030.
Nursing shortages are not new. This latest has existed since 2012, but the pandemic pushed it towards a new crisis. As nurses incur a significant impact of the enormous strains placed on the healthcare system, many retire while others leave the profession for safer environments. This guide examines the details of this complex issue, shares statistics, and offers some strategies to help current nurses and nursing students navigate and even benefit from this shortage.
The Nursing Shortage: Just the Facts
The U.S. nursing shortage is projected to worsen as baby boomers retire. Adding to this, many younger nurses are leaving the profession for less-stressful careers since today’s nurses experience more fatigue, burnout, and psychological distress than ever before as well as fear for their safety.
Nationwide restrictions in nursing program enrollments have intensified the nursing shortage. Constrained resources prevent nursing schools from enrolling and thus graduating enough nurses to meet the growing need. Despite these restrictions, student enrollment at all levels of nursing programs increased in 2020.
Shortages vary by state, though it’s more pronounced in rural and less-affluent communities, and there are many causes and factors.
Causes of the Shortage:
- Nursing school enrollment does not meet the demand for nurses. In 2020, nursing schools rejected 80,521 qualified applicants because they lacked the budgets, faculty, clinical sites, and class space, among other educational resources.
- Older nurses are retiring. In 2017, the average RN was 50 years old, which means at least one million nurses – that’s two-thirds of the RN workforce – will retire by 2030.
- The aging baby boomer population needs care. By 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 82 million U.S. citizens will be 65 or older, increasing the need for geriatric care. This includes full or part-time supervision to help manage physical and mental health conditions.
- Severe shortages in places like Alaska, California, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Texas have led to extreme solutions with wider impact. For example, Texas recruited 2,500 out-of-state nurses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Low salaries in some communities contribute to shortages in those areas. The Midwest and Northeast regions, for example, experience slower growth than the West Coast and Mountain regions experiencing the fastest growth. Growth also varies by nursing specialty with some areas (e.g., labor and delivery, critical care) more affected than others.
- Exhausted nurses are leaving the profession because of burnout due to understaffing challenges. Many have also become fearful about their safety, especially as the pandemic increased the hazards found in unsafe working conditions.
- Lack of nursing school staff. A large number of retiring nurses results in fewer nurse educators. In addition, teaching roles tend to pay less than positions for working nurses.
- The rise of travel nursing impacts hiring trends. Travel nurses earn from double to quadruple a typical nurse’s pay to contract at understaffed hospitals for brief periods. The profitability of travel nursing resulted in a 35% increase in travel nurses in 2020 with a projected growth of 40%, which means fewer nurses in long-term, employed positions.
Nursing Opportunities by State
This interactive U.S. map allows you to click on a state for details about the nursing opportunities in that state. Information includes the number of current nursing jobs, expected growth, and average nursing salary.
Statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov
What Does This Mean for Nurses and Students?
An upside to the nursing shortage is that most nursing students won’t struggle to find jobs after graduation. Nursing professionals can expect employment opportunities to grow 9% between 2016 and 2026, a faster rate than all other occupations. Job opportunities, though abundant, vary depending on region, skill level, education level, and experience, and some healthcare institutions want nurses with extensive training beyond an associate degree.
Aspiring nurses may, however, struggle to find spots in nursing school since most programs have limited admissions due to inadequate resources. Still, with the variety of program options and career paths available, along with the hope for positive changes in the system for educating nurses, the struggle may be well worth the effort. This is especially true considering the following:
- Nursing salaries have never been higher, RNs made $77,600 on average in 2021, which makes make nursing a financially lucrative career choice.
- Since hospitals can’t function without nurses, working as an RN brings job security. The occupation is growing, too, with the employment of RNs projected to grow by 9% between 2020 to 2030.
- The nursing shortage means there’s no shortage of job opportunities for RNs. Nursing careers include a range of different specializations, too, including occupational health, travel nursing, occupational nursing, pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology, critical care, and anesthesia.
- Nursing schools know they must find ways to accept more applicants, come up with creative ways to educate new nurses, and somehow offset the teacher shortage. This likely means more online options and increased partnerships with area healthcare providers needing qualified nurses for their staff.
Actionable Steps for Current or Prospective Nurses
The Center for American Progress (CAP) reported that between 2020 and 2021, employment levels of nurses dropped by 3% while the healthcare system strained under the weight of a significant increase in patients. The rise of travel nursing also contributed to this nursing shortage.
This crisis impacts everyone, from working nurses and nursing students to prospective nursing students and those needing healthcare. Fortunately, there are actionable steps current and prospective nurses can take. Even the public has a role to play in solving the nursing shortage problem.
Higher education needs more resources to train nurses to meet current healthcare demands. For this, Congress must pass legislation that would lead to investments in nursing programs. Advocating for these matters, whether in professional settings or online, will help. You might also write or call your local political leaders, organize petitions or marches, or spread awareness in your school or workplace. You can advocate for wellness, too, since healthier people need less medical care.
Below are additional actionable steps that current nurses, nursing students, and prospective nursing students can take to manage their health, minds, and careers.
- Prevent burnout through mindfulness, meditation, and other self-care practices. Eat healthy, exercise, and consider seeking help from a life coach or psychotherapist. Find the balance that works for you. While work is important, time away to recharge and renew is just as crucial.
- Nurse educators can address wellness concerns through wellness and trauma awareness programs and by creating and promoting reasonable standards of productivity. The higher rate of suicide in female nurses provides just one example of the need for minimizing burnout in these and other ways.
- Look for new opportunities. Seek professional development courses to enhance your professional skill set and prepare for leadership roles. Trust your abilities and ask for a raise or apply for a promotion when you’re ready for a new challenge.
- Consider a change of scenery. If you’re willing to relocate and not in an area highly challenged by a nursing shortage, moving to an area with higher demand is a great way to take advantage of relocation incentives and create new excitement for your career.
- Nurse educators can alleviate the nursing shortage by lifting enrollment caps. Increasing the number of nursing degrees earned is one of the most obvious ways to alleviate the shortage.
- Nursing programs must find innovative ways to attract students. In addition to content that engages college-age students honestly and directly, updated social media marketing strategies can also help encourage enrollment.
- Nurses in leadership positions must address workplace conditions that impact nurse retention. This happens through flexible scheduling, adequate and ongoing training, and an atmosphere that promotes growth.
- Apply for funding (e.g., grants, fellowships, scholarships) to help reduce what you pay for your nursing education. Look for funding and research opportunities to help ease your load or boost your professional profile.
- Research high-demand positions and locations. Peruse the various nursing specialties for the areas of greatest demand. If you’re open to relocating, look for positions in areas you might enjoy living.
- Explore travel nursing. You can make a lot more money as a traveling nurse while testing out nursing in high-demand areas or working in a new department. Maybe you’ll find you love living on the road, discover a new place to call home, or venture into a new specialty.
- Consider earning a graduate degree. A PhD in Nursing, for example, allows you to conduct original, innovative research. As a nursing researcher, you could work to solve the nursing shortage or other problems in the profession.
Prospective Nursing Students:
- Research program options and start early. Beginning as soon as possible, research a variety of options and document them in a spreadsheet or notebook. Investigate the application process and find out the requirements for prerequisites, entrance exams, letters of recommendation, etc. Visit schools and explore services like financial aid and disability services to make sure a program and school meet your needs.
- Apply to multiple programs. Since nursing programs accept fewer students than other disciplines, you’ll want to apply to more schools to increase your chances of getting into nursing school. In addition to your top choices, have backup schools selected as well. The process is competitive, and having multiple options increases your chances of acceptance.
- Don’t delay your education. If nursing is important to you, don’t let fear or insecurity hold you back. Scholarships, fellowships, and grants can help relieve financial burdens. If you’re disabled and need accommodations, find a nursing school that offers plenty of disability services.
The nursing shortage is a big issue with no simple solution. It also presents unique and ample opportunities for jobs, career growth, and great pay. There has never been a better time to explore nursing as a career option. Start by learning about how to become an RN and discovering the top online programs for RNs. If you’re looking to travel, relocate, or specialize check out this ultimate guide to travel nursing and take this quiz to find a nursing specialty. For those just beginning their higher education journey, learning the best things about being a nurse and how to enter the nursing profession are good places to start.