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Tag: David Glenn

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nursing Shortages


Not so long ago, the air was filled with dire warnings of an impending nursing shortage. By 2020, according to one widely-cited analysis, demand might exceed supply by as many as 800,000 nurses.

That analysis was made in good faith, and it was based on not-crazy extrapolations from thirty years’ worth of economic data.

But in many local labor markets in 2012, there’s no sign of a shortage. In fact, in some regions there’s evidence of a glut. A few months ago, the California Institute for Nursing & Health Care announced that 43 percent of people who received nursing degrees in California and 2010 and 2011 were not working as nurses.

I’m going to try to make some dimly-informed comments about the nursing labor market in the next few posts. But first, a few words about what it means to say that there is (or isn’t) a nursing shortage.

In this context, “nursing shortage” is used in an unsentimental labor-economics sense. A nursing shortage exists when employers are actively trying to hire additional nurses but are rubbing against supply constraints, as evidenced by:

rapidly rising wages
mandatory overtime
heavy use of temporary “agency” nurses to fill gaps on units
a greater-than-usual willingness to hire nurses with little experience or limited training
new investments in nurse-replacing technology
desperate 3 am phone calls from hospital administrators to college presidents, begging them to launch new nursing programs

To say that there is no nursing shortage today is not to say that all hospital units are adequately staffed for patient safety and decent quality of care. There is plenty of reason to believe that patients would be better off if hospitals invested in stronger nurse-patient ratios.

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Why New Nurses Can’t Find Jobs (No, Really)

This month’s wretched jobs report tells a now-familiar tale: Employment has risen nicely in health care (a net gain of more than 340,000 jobs between May 2011 and May 2012). But almost every other sector has been flat or worse.

You might think that would mean that new-graduate nurses are having an easy time finding work. That’s still true in rural areas — but elsewhere, no.

In many U.S. cities, especially on the west coast, there’s real evidence of a nursing glut. The most recent survey conducted by the National Student Nurses’ Association found that more than 30 percent of recent graduates had failed to find jobs.

How is that possible?

While demand for nurses has been rising, it actually hasn’t risen as fast as most scholars had projected. Meanwhile, the supply of nurses has spiked unexpectedly, at both ends of the age scale: Older nurses have delayed retirement, often because the recession has thrown their spouses out of work. And people in their early twenties are earning nursing degrees at a rate not seen in decades. We’re now in the sixth year in which health-care employment has far outshone every other sector, and college students have read those tea leaves.

So what will happen next?

Here are crude sketches of two possible futures:

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