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Career Opportunities in a Time of Nursing Shortage

A growing shortage of registered nurses (RN) is being recorded in all parts of the country in settings inside hospitals and beyond. The underlying concern is that an insufficient supply of nurses will limit the public's access to health care. Nursing school leaders, federal and state legislators, health care administrators, and consumer advocacy groups are working together to find solutions to the nursing shortage to ensure that health care delivery is not compromised over the next two decades.

Nursing Shortage at a Glance

Today's nursing shortage is very real and very different from any experienced in the past. As a huge segment of the population, the baby boomers, enters their senior adult years, the demand for health care is expected to grow in response. This need for care comes at a time when nursing schools are struggling to maintain enrollment levels and a large percentage of the RN workforce is close to retirement.

Signposts pointing to the emerging nursing shortage are everywhere:

• According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2000), the U.S. will experi-ence a 20% shortage in the number of nurses needed in our nation's health care system by the year 2020.

• The American Hospital Association reports that 75% of all current hospital vacancies are for registered nurses.

• Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics point to the need for more than one million new nurses by the year 2010.

• According to the latest survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate programs in nursing increased by 3.7% nationwide since 2000, ending a six-year period of decline. Despite this slight increase, enrollments in all programs are down 17% or 21,126 students from 1995.

• A report issued last year by the University of Illinois College of Nursing found that the ratio of potential caregivers to the people most likely to need care (the elderly population) will decrease by 40% between 2010 and 2030.

• According to the latest sample survey conducted by the federal Division of Nursing, the average age of the working registered nurse was 43.3 in March 2000, up from 42.3 in 1996. With the average age for nurse retirements set at 52, a wave of RNs exiting the workforce is expected within the next ten years.

Simply stated, the need for nursing care and the demand for nurses is increasing, while the number of nurses to provide that care is not keeping pace. Opportunities Abound in Times of Shortage

How will the nursing shortage affect new recruits to the profession?

Actually, there has never been a better time to become a nurse.  Salaries are going up and working conditions are improving in an effort to appeal to new students and retain working RNs in the profession. Nurses are gaining more independence on the job, which enables them to use the full capacity of their education and expertise. Job security is also extremely high, given the fact that the projected supply of RNs will not come close to meeting the demand.

The media spotlight on the nursing shortage has also helped to showcase the many roles available within the profession. Although there is a great demand for nurses to provide direct care, they are also needed as researchers, health care administrators, policy analysts, and nurse executives. The baccalaureate-prepared nurse enjoys the greatest opportunity for career advancement, as well as the ability to move seamlessly into upper level roles requiring a master's degree or doctorate.

One of the greatest areas of need is for nursing school faculty. Nurse educators play a central role in preparing new nurses and adapting curriculum in response to changing technology and professional practices. The shortage of nurse faculty is hindering the efforts of nursing schools in many parts of the country to expand enrollments. 

The nursing shortage has also focused federal attention on the need to remove economic barriers to the profession. This translates into more resources for financial aid—grants, loans and scholarships—for those seeking a nursing education. Though aid is available to all nursing students in general, special programs exist to recruit members of diverse, underrepresented groups into nursing. Be sure to check with the financial aid officers at the schools you wish to attend for the details on specific programs.

The nursing shortage has amplified the critical role nurses play in our nation's health care system. Nursing is a challenging, dynamic profession that brings many rewards and career advancement opportunities. With salaries climbing, working conditions improving, and the demand for nursing services on the rise, it's an exciting time to become a nurse.

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