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How the Nurse Educator Shortage Is Holding Back Healthcare

Interest in nursing careers has never been higher. But a lack of qualified nursing faculty is squeezing the pipeline of the future nursing workforce. This is a troubling long-term trend in the face of rapidly growing demand for healthcare.

A nurse educator overlooking the work of another nurse.

Several indicators point to a shortage in nurse educators, with dire consequences for the future healthcare workforce. Despite a growing interest in the nursing profession, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) argues that a lack of qualified nursing faculty across U.S. nursing programs will limit the industry’s ability to meet the growing demand for healthcare.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 10% increase in jobs in the healthcare sector from 2018 to 2028, amounting to 1.9 million new jobs over 10 years. The BLS lists registered nursing (RN) to be among the top healthcare occupations with the most significant job growth and projects that the RN workforce will grow by as much as 12% by 2028.

In order to meet this demand, there is currently a need for more than 200,000 new RNs to enter the workforce each year.

Not Enough Seats for Qualified Student Nurses

In 2019, the AACN reported that U.S. nursing schools rejected more than 75,000 applicants in 2018, not because they weren’t qualified, but because there weren’t enough seats in the programs. Potential entrants into the nursing workforce are prevented from earning undergraduate and graduate degrees due to the lack of faculty.

The National League for Nursing (NLN) reports a total of 235,038 applications to RN programs in 2017. While this number appears to be on track to meet the projected annual demand for new nurses, most of them will not pursue jobs as nurse educators.

In its 2016-2017 Faculty Census (NLN Faculty Census PDF source), the NLN found there to be as many as 839 faculty vacancies across U.S. nursing programs.

The Future and Past of the Nurse Educator Shortage

By 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that one in five residents will be retirement age, leading older people to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. It would seem likely that this could exacerbate a nursing shortage as the number of individuals in need of care rises.

Healthcare organizations have been talking about a nursing shortage for several decades. In 2002, the National League for Nursing board of governors published a position paper calling for “immediate and focused effort to provide increased opportunities in graduate programs to develop faculty.”

Understanding the nature of the problem is the first step toward finding an effective solution. Multiple compounding factors appear to play a role in the shortage of nursing faculty.

The Looming Retirement Wave in Nursing Faculty

The Atlantic says the largest contingent of registered nurses started their careers in the 1970s or earlier — when women had fewer career options available to them. Many of these nurses have already retired or are planning to do so in the next few years, creating critical gaps in the healthcare workforce.

According to Health Leaders, the retirement of nurses has had an especially negative impact on nursing faculty compared to other career tracks. The nurse educator profession tends to attract more experienced nurses.

The AACN reports that the average age of nursing faculty with a doctoral degree for positions of professor, associate professor and assistant professor were 62.4, 57.2, and 51.2 years, respectively. As a result, nurse educators are retiring in greater numbers than other career tracks.

The gaps in nursing faculty will be much harder to fill than others. Such positions often benefit from — but don’t require — years of clinical experience, but they also require more years of higher education.

Insight Into Diversity dispels the notion that 20 years of clinical experience is required to be a nurse educator and encourages nursing programs to raise awareness among students who may be interested in the nurse educator career track. To help manage the shortage of faculty, nursing programs might also offer incentives to retain current nurse educators who are looking to retire.

Further reading: Should I Be a Nurse or a Teacher? You May be Able to do Both

New Career Opportunities Are Attracting Nurses

In the past, Texas Medical Centers says, relevant positions for registered nurses were quite limited and career trajectories well established. For example, a nurse working in a hospital might advance up the ladder from the position of staff nurse all the way to become the director of nursing.

Today, a nursing degree can open many new doors; for example, to work for a biomedical company, a pharmaceutical company, an insurance company or hospital administration. Artificial intelligence and other new technologies will open up other specializations in data science and digital healthcare.

The wealth of exciting new opportunities available to the emerging generation of nurses will make it harder to recruit them to careers in education.

Salary Competition is Fierce

The variety of new opportunities for using nursing degrees combined with a general shortage of nurses produces fierce salary competition across many different nursing sectors.

For nurses with graduate degrees, this competition enables much higher salaries than nurse educators, especially for specializations and skill sets that are in high demand.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, the average salary of a nurse practitioner, a position that generally requires an MA, was about $105,903 in 2018. Meanwhile, a nurse faculty position of assistant professor with an MA paid about $78,575.

Given the high cost of graduate education, nurses would likely end up earning much less if they become a nurse educator than work as a full-time clinical nurse or take a job requiring special skill sets in the private sector.

Pursuing Solutions

The Future of Nursing report by the Institute of Medicine proposes a long-term strategy to encourage more nurses to seek higher levels of education in order to double the number of nurses with doctoral degrees.

However, recruitment has become challenging. Insight into Diversity argues that many young nurses envision themselves in roles where they will provide patient care upon graduation. Once they enter the workforce, heavy clinical workloads may discourage them from considering advanced degrees. Plus, significant salary differences between other career tracks and academic jobs will keep them from pursuing a career as an educator.

A study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that nursing programs should consider offering more financial incentives to encourage young nurses to become educators. Moreover, nursing programs should make graduate degrees more accessible through distance learning.

To fast-track faculty candidates, nursing programs also could offer opportunities for graduate students to acquire clinical experience while on the path toward becoming nursing faculty.

Workforce Development

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