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Nursing Workforce Stats Take a Surprising Turn

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   December 06, 2011

A nursing study out this week brings hospitals some welcome good news: The nursing shortage may not be as bad we feared it would be.

Nurse staffing gurus David Auerbach, health economist at RAND Health; Peter Buerhaus from Vanderbilt University; and Douglas Staiger from Dartmouth took a look at 35 years of data and discovered the number of people ages 23-26 entering nursing has increased 62% from 2002 to 2009.

"This is a very welcome and surprising development," says Auerbach, in a media release. "Instead of worrying about a decline, we are now growing the supply of nurses."

The study, published in Health Affairs, shows the nursing workforce is changing and the percentage of younger nurses is higher than in decades, reflecting a dramatic turnaround from the previous two decades. Between 1983 and 1998, the proportion of nurses younger than 30 dropped from 30% to 12%. In turn, this led to an increase in average age from 37.4 to 42. Increasing options for female employment is one of the reasons for fewer younger nurses in these decades.

The workforce stats have been worrying healthcare leaders since the 90s, as experts predicted future shortfalls. Programs have been developed to increase the numbers of college courses and promote nursing as a career. It appears these effort have been working, combined with factors such as the perceived stability of healthcare employment, decline in manufacturing jobs, and growing popularity of nursing for people in their 20s and 30s.

The researchers project the RN workforce will grow at roughly the same rate as the general population through 2030, which is great news for the nursing shortage and should mean its effects are less severe than previously thought. It's giving hospitals hope that the increase of younger nurses will temper some of the effects of baby boomers leaving the profession.

Despite all this good news, it's worth noting we're not completely out of the woods. The highest proportion of nurses in the workforce is still the older generations. According to the 2008 National Sample Survey of RNs, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, 44.7% of nurses were older than 50 in 2008. The median age is 46. The influx of younger nurses is helping more than expected, but it won't entirely solve all our problems.

What does this mean for healthcare? It's not time to abandon retention programs. We know that the aging population will require more and more healthcare services, so we'll need all the help we can get.

In addition, the majority of your nurse leaders and nurse managers are likely from the baby boomer generation. It would be a great folly to wait until they are desperate for retirement before training their replacements.

The need for formal succession planning is clear. The two largest cohorts of nurses are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The younger group needs professional development opportunities and mentoring from their more experienced colleagues. The older group needs creative ways to keep them engaged and able to stay in the workforce as long as they want.

Succession planning programs will provide a roadmap to ensure future nurse staffing needs are met.

Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at

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