At a time when many Americans are in desperate need of a job, the field of nursing will soon be in desperate need of Americans.
The economic downturn of the past few years has temporarily eased the nation’s shortage of nurses, but university nursing schools say they are struggling to keep up with what is expected to be soaring demand and chronic shortfalls in years to come.
Employment services routinely list nursing as one of the hot hiring professions of the next decade, but supply never seems to catch up with demand - even as the national unemployment rate tops 9 percent.
The need for more nurses in the coming years stems mainly from an aging baby boomer population as well as a generation of aging nurses who will retire. Although the nursing shortage of the early 21st century has been helped temporarily by the economy, many are predicting a shortage in the next several years.
“I look at it like a double helix. When the economy is up, the nursing supply goes down. And when the economy tanks, the supply goes back up,” said Karen Haller, vice president of nursing at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “What we’re seeing right now is an aging of the workforce. Many nurses in their 50s are going to be retiring soon. … There is a silver tsunami of retirements coming. You can’t delay retirement forever.”
Most labor shortages tend to be self-correcting - workers flock to jobs as wages rise.
The problem, however, is not a lack of Americans who want to be nurses. It’s finding the schools that can teach them.
“There’s definitely a lot of people interested in nursing,” said Robert Rosseter, spokesman for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
“The number of students who met all the requirements but weren’t admitted was over 67,000 students last year [in U.S. nursing programs],” he said. “People do want in, but there just aren’t enough seats.”
The No. 1 reason why qualified students are turned away from nursing programs: a lack of faculty.
While the number of applicants to undergraduate nursing programs is climbing, the number of students accepted remains low. At the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities, 64 of 324 total applicants were admitted in 2011. The numbers are also low at the University of Washington at Seattle, which admitted 95 out of 455 total applicants, and the University of Pittsburgh, which admitted 120 students out of 1,050 total applicants in 2010. All three schools have highly ranked nursing programs.
Ethan Nowaczyk, a student from UM-Twin Cities, said he feels he was wrongly denied admission into the nursing program last spring.
“This is the thing I want to do. I want to help people. I feel like I’m definitely qualified but I wasn’t accepted, and that’s a lot of people’s problem,” Mr. Nowaczyk said. “I have good grades. But the school only has so many spots. It’s just frustrating that they have a shortage, but I want to do this and I can’t.”
Kristen Swanson, dean of the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said a lack of funding is to blame. UNC reduced its undergraduate program by 25 percent this year because of cuts in state funding.
Ms. Swanson said the resulting faculty layoffs meant that the school simply was unable to accept more applicants.