How Nurses Can Increase Their Earning Potential

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By Megan M. Krischke, contributor

October 14, 2011 - The tenuous state of the U.S. economy has caused many nurses to take a hard look at their personal financial stability and find ways to maximize their earning power. One solution is personal professional development--acquiring advanced skill sets, meeting qualifications for specialty certifications and earning advanced degrees. Nurses can also use skills they already possess as the foundation for building a business that is an extension of their nursing experience.

Nan Brown, RN, BSN, and Lil Bogdan, RN, BSN, believe nurses are particularly gifted with the skills required to increase their earning power and achieve their dreams. Brown and Bogdan are co-founders of the L’Athene line of natural skin care products, once carried exclusively by Nordstom’s department stores and now also sold in spas and physicians’ offices.
“Nurses are great communicators, they know how to be flexible and wear many hats, they manage time and people, they implement and complete tasks and they are extremely resourceful. We have said many times that the skills we already had as nurses contributed greatly to our financial success,” stated Brown.

“The most common attribute among the financially successful nurses I know is not so much their earning power, but their ability to live within their means and not let their lifestyle get ahead of their income. It is difficult to build wealth and be economically successful when you are in debt,” commented Dean Burke, M.D., author of The Millionaire Nurse book and blog.

If you are looking for a way to earn more quickly, consider pursuing a management position. These positions, such as floor manager or shift supervisor, typically require leadership skills, but not necessarily an advanced degree.

“There are lots of free classes on leadership,” added Burke. “And the skills are transferable. If you are a leader in your church, you can be a leader in your workplace.”

Advance practice nurses such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners are all top earners in the profession. And the salaries of nurse managers in large facilities can be quite competitive. But Burke encourages nurses to consider what it is they want to do for the next 20 to 30 years.

“If you are using financial rewards as a guide, be aware that your choice may take you down a different career path than if you are looking for intellectual rewards, for instance,” reflected Kathleen Dracup, RN, DNSc, professor and former dean at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing. “If you look across average earnings you will see that administration pays more than clinical and that industry pays more than academia. If you are interested in a clinical practice at an advanced level it is good to be aware of the differences in salary. For instance, a nurse anesthetist will typically make $20,000 more a year than an acute care nurse practitioner.”

According to Dracup, earning a doctorate degree can have differing effects on income. An advanced practice nurse who is earning $150,000 a year in a clinical setting, might go back to school for a Ph.D. and be hired at $80,000 a year in academia. Taking a Ph.D.-level role in a hospital, such as director of nursing education and research or director of quality improvement, will likely pay 50 to 100 percent more than a Ph.D.-level role in academia.

“Education has a tremendous pay-off and a graduate degree is being expected for a variety of roles for which it once wasn’t expected. In the past you could easily become a CNO with an AA degree or diploma, but now you have to be prepared at least at the BSN level, and often higher,” explained Dracup.  “I always tell my graduate students, ‘You may have come for different reasons--some come to get off shift rotation, some come with clear career goals to work in a hospital, or in academia or to start an independent practice--but no matter why you have come, you will be amazed at the opportunities presented to you at graduation. They will be far beyond your imagination.’”

“You have to find a niche that speaks to you, one that you are interested in enough to put in the work it will take to advance in that area. You also need to look at the cost of the education required versus how much the job you are hoping to obtain will pay,” advised Burke. “Right now a key area of growth is in primary care, so equipping yourself to work in that field can create earning power in the future.”

Dracup also encourages nurses to seek out people who have had success in the role they would like to have and find out what made them successful.

“In the last three years of the recession, nursing has seen fewer layoffs and less job loss than any other field, so it is a very secure career,” remarked Burke. “If, however, you are a staff nurse and you don’t take any initiative to improve your skill set or take on more responsibility you cannot expect to receive pay increases beyond those driven by inflation.”
Cynthia Ward, MSN, RN-BC, CMSRN, ACNS-BC, Registered Nurse 4 at Centra Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia and president of the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board, says the goal of certification is to show increased clinical expertise which improves clinical outcomes, but the increased pay is an added benefit.
“Certification in many hospitals does offer an opportunity for more pay,” Ward said. “Some have a certification differential where you receive a different hourly rate or an annual bonus if you are certified. In other institutions, certification will allow you to advance on a clinical ladder that offers more pay. Additionally, certification makes you a more desirable job candidate because it shows your commitment to the specialty. Magnet hospitals particularly look for certified nurses.”

Participating in a professional association can also contribute to a successful career.

“Professional associations are committed to providing value to their members and the one that I belong to, the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing (AAACN), has exceeded my expectations,” commented Traci Haynes, MSN, RN, BA, CEN, president of the AAACN. “I knew eventually I would want to move into administration and AAACN has helped in many ways. After becoming a member, I worked on and chaired different committees and regularly attended the annual conference.  The collegiality and opportunities for networking in a professional association, as well as the educational opportunities and learning about leadership, has helped me achieve my career goals.”

Nurses can also achieve financial success by starting their own business, as Brown and Bogdan did.

“We have a passion for what we do. We saw an opportunity to provide a product that wasn’t currently in the marketplace by expanding what we were doing in the hospital and using the skills we’d already developed as nurses,” remarked Brown.

“Because nursing is considered one of the most trusted professions, individual nurses can tap into that reputation when they are working to start a new business. We often found that people were willing to help us because of a positive experience they had had with a nurse,” Bogdan explained. “It is amazing how many people are willing to help nurses by answering questions and finding resources.”

“These days a lot can be done with very little money. You can create a Web page, a Facebook page and get business cards at very little cost. The key is to start. Many times people plan and plan and plan and they never start. If you have a passion and an interest it is amazing how far you can go with the skills you already have from your degree,” encouraged Brown.

The pair feels strongly that nurses need to care for themselves.
“Choosing to do something you really want to be doing is a way to care for yourself,” said Brown. “Don’t let your dreams get lost in day-to-day living.”

“I see nurses who are working hard to achieve an advanced degree while continuing shift work, but there is a light in their eyes because they are passionate about reaching their goal,” observed Bogdan.

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