Why Aren’t There More Nurses?

Why Aren’t There More Nurses?

Why Aren’t There More Nurses?

A blog about business, finance, and economics.
Aug. 13 2010 10:49 AM

Why Aren’t There More Nurses?

The final story I wrote for The Big Money was on the apparent failure of worker retraining to provide enough jobs to make a dent in the nation's army of 17 million or so jobless people. Particularly striking is the so-called nursing shortage; despite the large amount of worker retraining that goes into health care and the fact that nursing is predicted to be the largest growing occupation for the next decade , we still can't even come close to filling the number of nursing jobs that health professionals say we need. At the same time, a story in USA Today in June depicted a " rare glut of nurses " on the market right now, making nursing jobs for recent grads hard to find. How, my story asked, can we have a glut and a shortage of nurses at the same time?

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I had some ideas, and readers put forth their own. One reader cited poor working conditions: "A large number of middle-aged nurses have left the profession when their hospital replaced their five 8-hour work days per week with four 10-hour work days. The nurses felt that the work was too tiring and prevented them doing a good job. They had alternatives and left the profession. I'm also aware of nurses who left the field because they grew tired of the mandatory overtime." Another cited disillusionment with the health care bureaucracy: "People that have been motivated to join medicine in order to help others are very discouraged because in reality they spend more time navigating the maze of HMOs and hospital procedures than actually seeing and helping patients. They spend more time filling out claims and insurance forms and worrying about how to bill or not bill for everything."

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I published my story before all the reporting contacts got back to me. Robert Rosseter, spokesman for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, points to this helpful assemblage of data . He also, in an e-mail, cites some reasons the market is changing and points a big-picture finger at inadequate schools. Here's Rosseter:

"The current state of the nursing shortage is a little hard to assess. The economic downturn has disrupted the trends in nurse retirements and general working patterns, which has resulted in fewer retirements, more nurses returning to work, and more nurses moving from part- to full-time employment. This is occurring at a time when some hospitals are instituting hiring freezes and calling for layoffs. Consequently, fewer "first-choice" positions are now available for new graduates, though opportunities still exist in other practice settings including long-term care.

Though this is the current state of the industry, workforce analysts, including Peter Buerhaus from Vanderbilt University, are cautioning that the nursing shortage is not over and that it would be a mistake to think that the crisis has ended. His latest projections point to a shortage of 260,000 registered nurses by the year 2025. Once the economy recovers fully, most stakeholders believe that old workforce patterns will re-emerge and the shortage will resurface. One of the drivers of the shortage is the fact that the nursing workforce is aging rapidly and a large wave of retirements is expected to occur over the next 10 years. This is still likely to happen and may have a deep impact on RN supply.

The nursing shortage has not resulted from a lack of interest in nursing careers. In fact, almost 55,000 qualified applications were turned away from baccalaureate and graduate nursing schools last year because schools could not accommodate all interested students. The obstacle here is not having enough faculty to expand the number of students that can be educated in US schools of nursing."

That certainly sounds persuasive. If you have another theory, post a comment below or send an e-mail to moneybox@slate.com .

James Ledbetter is the editor of Inc. and the host of Panoply’s podcast Inc. Uncensored.