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The Nursing Shortage? It's Complicated

Analysis  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   February 28, 2017

A workforce data analysis predicts a national nursing surplus of 340,000 registered nurses by 2025. But there is more to this story.

The United States is on the verge of a nursing surplus.

Yes, you read that right.

Data from the December 2014 report on the future of nursing issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, estimates that in 2025 there will be a surplus of 340,000 full time equivalent registered nurses.

"Assuming that Title VIII keeps funding the education and the colleges have faculty, if we keep getting 150,000 new nurses a year over 10 years, that's 1.5 million. [The Bureau of Labor Statistics] says the vacancies are 1.2 million," says Peter McMenamin, PhD, senior policy advisor and health economist at the American Nurses Association.

"It should be enough warm bodies to fill all the vacancies," he adds.

Insight Report: Nursing Shortages Demand 'Disruptive' Action

McMenamin edited and curated ANA's Nurses By The Numbers report, a curated source of federal data on RNs. But that number doesn't tell the whole story about the future of the nursing workforce.

Experience Needed
While there may be a national nursing surplus, certain geographic areas may experience nursing shortages, according to the HRSA data. Estimates project surpluses in Midwestern states such as Illinois and Minnesota while Western states such as California and Colorado will see shortages.

This infographic created by Nursing@Georgetown's Online FNP Program is a good visual on which states are projected to have shortages and which states will have surpluses.

While supply outpaces demand in many areas, it doesn't account for the loss of knowledge that will occur when nearly one million nurses who entered the profession in the mid-1970s and early-1980s retire, McMenamin says.

"There's going to be a tremendous human capital loss. That's where the shortage is. It's not a shortage of nurses. It's a shortage of experienced nurses," he says.

McMenamin encourages hospitals to take proactive steps to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from those experienced nurses before they retire.

"Hospitals ought to recognize that their most senior nurses are a valuable resource and that they might be able to extend their careers by offering some of them the opportunity to become mentors to new nurses," he says.

"If the hospitals hired a few more new nurses, we're not talking hundreds, we're talking a half a dozen or a dozen that they otherwise might not have, and then treat them well, bring them along, grow their own experienced workforce, then they wouldn't be confronted with the choice of either being shorthanded or trying to bid up wages from their neighbors across town."

Plan for the Future
It will take planning to address the loss of experienced nurses, but it can be done, McMenamin says.

"If you're in a kayak at the top of a whitewater rafting course, it is possible to get to the bottom and not capsize or hit the shore," he says. "But you can't do it blindfolded and you can't put on auto pilot. You have to keep your eyes open and adjust as things are going on."

There will be time to facilitate that knowledge transfer over the next few years. All retirements won't occur on December 31, 2024. They will happen gradually and can be dealt with through creative thinking.

"You can plan for weathering the retirements. It may give you sleepless nights every once in a while, but it should be manageable," he says.

"You have to think it through and have a long-range strategy, not jump at some whim and [think] 'I've got to hire people with 30 years of experience tomorrow. Where am I going to find them?'"

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

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