Nursing News

Surge in Young Nurses Buoys Hopes of Easing Shortage


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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

December 9, 2011 - With the number of young people entering the nursing profession surging, the current group of 23-26 year olds has the potential to become the largest cohort of nurses ever observed, according to a new study, surpassing the legions of baby boomers who became nurses and, possibly, easing the nursing shortage.

“Whereas maybe five years ago it seemed there was no way to avoid a large shortage, now with this response, it creates a pathway where it is possible that the retirement of the baby boomers could be counteracted by this big influx of new people into the profession, if this trend keeps going,” said lead author David I. Auerbach, MS, Ph.D., a health economist at RAND Health in Boston, who adds that he was surprised by the findings.

“No one seemed to think this was possible,” Auerbach said. “For 15 years, we’ve been in the doldrums and a whole generation not seeing this as an attractive profession. It was hard to anticipate what would turn this around. When we saw the first inklings of this in the data, we didn’t believe it.”

Nursing Shortage
Peter I. Buerhaus, Ph.D., RN, said the country needed the surge of younger people to increase the supply of nurses.

Co-author Peter I. Buerhaus, Ph.D., RN, the Valere Potter Professor of Nursing and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said he was surprised by the size of the trend. Smaller samples had provided hints of an easing, but a larger sample was needed. The current study uses federal data from the American Community Survey and gave the team the power to prove the trend is real, he said.

Aggressive efforts to make nursing a more attractive career choice have helped spur a 62 percent increase in the number of nurses aged 23-26 years entering the field between 2002 and 2009, from 102,000 to 165,000 full-time equivalent RNs, reported the authors in a Health Affairs article.

Because of an influx of people choosing nursing as a second career or coming into it later in life, Auerbach predicted even more nurses from those birth years studied will eventually become nurses and surpass the number of baby boomers who joined the profession.

“It looks like a world turned upside down,” Auerbach said. “It’s pretty neat.”

Although the authors do not know definitively what is driving the increase in nurses joining the workforce, Auerbach attributes much of it to the poor economy.

“Most evidence is pointing the fact that [nursing] is a stable, reliable career,” Auerbach said.

Buerhaus also cited the economy and said society saw that health care tends to weather recessions better than some other industries. He also credited the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future with helping create a more positive image of the profession; support from funders, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; and federal expansions of nursing education funding.

Rather than declining as previously projected, the authors expect the registered nurse workforce to increase at roughly the same rate as the population through 2030.

“If new entry keeps growing at 2 percent per year, it looks like that would keep the workforce growing at a steady rate and could eliminate a shortage, but you don’t know what will happen to need in the future,” Auerbach said.

Buerhaus added, “It’s one thing to get people to go into nursing, and it’s another to get them employed.”

A slow job recovery has clogged the labor market, with fewer positions for new nurses opening up, which he said could deter people from entering the profession. He added that the long-term projection reported in the study does not mean the nursing shortage is over.

“While it is unbelievably terrific that we suddenly have this surge of young people coming into the profession, which we started to see over the past four or six years, the impact on growing the supply won’t occur for a while down the stream.”

Shortages continue to exist in some areas. The Florida Hospital Association reported in December 2011 that more than three-quarters of Florida hospitals are facing a nursing shortage, with a 6.5 percent RN vacancy rate, compared to a 4.6 percent vacancy rate in 2009.

In addition, the need for nurses is expected to increase. Many of the 900,000 RNs older than 50 years of age will retire during the next decade and will need to be replaced. In addition, the profession must grow the supply, with an aging population and people with chronic conditions needing more health care and the potential influx of 32 million newly insured patients as a result of health-reform legislation.

“There’s a lot of demand looking forward,” Buerhaus said. “This is the first evidence that shows we will grow the supply, if we maintain these trends.”


 

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