From newspaper headlines to job posting websites, news of a nurse shortage in the United States, and subsequent high demand for nurses, has become widespread. Researchers and writers point to influential factors like aging baby boomers, retiring nurses, and the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to explain the phenomenon.
Career projections also speak to the reality of a nurse shortage, as sources like the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that roles for registered nurses will grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030. But that’s only the beginning: the BLS also projects that nurse practitioner roles will grow by 52% in the same time period.
The question becomes: what do today’s nurses need to know about the nursing shortage? What can they do to help address it? Are there specific places that have the greatest need for qualified nurses? And are there specific nursing opportunities that could make the most impact?
By learning more about the increased nursing demand and what it will take to meet the health care needs of individuals and populations, nurses can make the best next step for their careers and communities.
Spelling It Out: Reasons for the Nurse Shortage
There are several key factors that are contributing to the high demand for nurses that the U.S. is currently facing, including many nurses qualifying for retirement, the aging baby boomer population, and the need to increase capacity in nursing schools because they are limited due to faculty shortages. Consider each of these factors, as well as others, in a bit more depth.
Nurses Reaching Retirement Age
As of the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey, the average age of registered nurses was 52 years old. In 2017, the average age was 51 years old. Additionally, the largest age group among registered nurses is that of nurses who are 65 years old and above, representing 19% of the 2020 registered nurse workforce. In 2017, that percentage was 14.6%, and just a few years earlier in 2013 it was only 4.4%.
When it comes to nurse practitioners, the average age is 49 years old. As of the 2020 AANP National Nurse Practitioner Sample Survey, 9.5 % of nurse practitioners were 65 years of age or older, and 14.3% of nurse practitioners were between the ages of 60 and 64.
Studies have predicted that over one million registered nurses will retire between 2015 and 2030. In addition to that, 59% of nurse practitioners aged 60 years and older, as well as 15% of nurse practitioners between the ages of 55 and 59 report that they intend to retire within the next five years.
Baby Boomers Are Aging
In 2018, the Population Reference Bureau reported that 52 million Americans were 65 years old or older. By 2021, that number had risen to over 55 million. Statistics suggest that the number will only continue to rise, and rapidly, as the baby boom generation surpasses age 65 by the year 2030.
This has a twofold effect on the healthcare system: Baby Boomers in general are aging and subsequently requiring more care. Additionally, the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey found that the average age of surveyed registered nurses was 52, and that nurses aged 65 or older comprise 19% of the RN workforce in 2020 — the largest age category in the field. As these nurses retire, the healthcare shortage only grows.
As this large generation ages, medical technology is also enabling its members to live longer than they may have in past generations. In 1950, the average life expectancy was around 68 years old. In 2022, that age has risen to around 79 years old. As people live longer, they will require longer-term — and often more regular and comprehensive — healthcare.
Nursing Educator Shortage
One of the causes of the high demand for nurses comes down to the nurse pipeline itself — nursing schools are forced to turn away tens of thousands of qualified applicants each year due to a lack of clinical sites, faculty, and resources. In 2020 alone, 80,521 applicants were turned away.
This not only decreases the number of nurses who will be prepared to enter the field, but it limits the future potential pool of nurse educators as well. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing points out that 12,871 applicants were turned away from master of science in nursing programs in 2020, which means fewer nurse educators becoming qualified to teach and impart nursing skills.
The Pandemic Sparked Nurse Burnout
Nurses experienced very high levels of stress and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become a concerning factor when it comes to the nurse shortage. As nurses continue to struggle with burnout and the after effects of working on the front lines of a global pandemic, many are deciding to leave their jobs.
In fact, 34% of nurses say that it is very likely that they will quit their jobs by the end of 2022. Only 40% of those nurses say they intend to find a nursing role in another setting, while 32% say they are going to leave the field of nursing entirely or retire.
However, there are many things that can be done to address this component of the shortage. Empowering nurse managers and team leaders to advocate for better wages, more schedule flexibility, and self-care training, for example, could create cultural shifts that show nurses they are valued and give them the encouragement they need to continue doing the work that they love.
On the Map: US States with the Highest Demand for Nurses
While the nurse shortage is a national phenomenon, there are some states that are facing especially high demands for nurses. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health and Resources Services Administration (HRSA) stated in their projections that “substantial variation across states is observed for RNs in 2030 through the large differences between their projected supply and demand.”
The HRSA projects that four states will have a deficit of 10,000 or more full-time Registered Nurses by 2030:
- California: 44,500
- Texas: 15,900
- New Jersey: 11,400
- South Carolina: 10,400
The states with the highest level of employment among Registered Nurses according to the BLS in May 2021 are:
- California: 324,400
- Texas: 217,630
- New York: 188,300
- Florida: 187,920
- Pennsylvania: 149,270
As for Nurse Practitioners, the states with the highest level of employment are:
- Texas: 17,810
- California: 17,400
- New York: 15,190
- Florida: 14,880
- Tennessee: 11,360
First in Line: Nursing Specialties with the Highest Demand
While many nursing roles are growing rapidly, one rises to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of Fastest Growing Occupations: nurse practitioners. Between 2020 and 2030, 114,900 new nurse practitioner jobs are expected to become available in the United States.
One of the fastest growing nurse practitioner specialties is that of the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). The American Psychiatric Nurses Association reports that PMHNPs are growing more quickly than any other non-physician specialty in healthcare.
Other high-demand nursing specialties include:
- Nurse educator
- Intensive care unit nurse
- Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner
- Clinical nurse specialist
- Pediatric nurse practitioner
On the Road: The Rise in Travel Nursing
The travel nursing industry has been growing at unprecedented rates since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing 35% compared to the previous year. Experts expect to see the practice of travel nursing increase by another 40% in the next few years.
There are some challenges to travel nursing, such as:
- Handling travel logistics
- Missing friends and family
- Lacking long-term relationships with coworkers
- Being uncertain when or where the next job will be
However, travel nurses cite several benefits to the role, including:
- Higher wages
- Schedule flexibility
- A sense of personal control
- The ability to respond to areas and times of high-need, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Self-directed career trajectories
Industry Impact: Effects of the Nursing Shortage
There are several effects of the nursing shortage with implications for patients, nurses, and institutions:
- Nurses are forced to care for more patients, which can lead to increased risk for errors, ineffective decision making, and even higher rates of patient mortality
- Patients have less satisfactory healthcare experiences
- Nursing schools and hospitals are strained as they try to address the shortage
- Nurses suffer from compassion fatigue, overwork, and burnout
While the effects of the nursing shortage are alarming, there is a tremendous opportunity for nurses to gain further skills and be leaders in this changing industry. Their careers, the healthcare institutions they serve, and the lives of patients will be better for it.
Rise to the Occasion: AcceleAdvancerate Your Nursing Career and Stop the Shortage
The Spring Arbor University Online Master of Science in Nursing degree programs are designed for working nurses who want to grow their potential for providing excellent healthcare. With a curriculum rooted in a Christ-centered philosophy of education, the MSN online programs feature just one course at a time, feature no mandatory login times, and promote faculty engagement.
Prospective students who already have their Bachelor of Science in Nursing have three MSN programs available to them:
- MSN-NP: Choose the best online NP program for you from four specialization choices: Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner, Family Nurse Practitioner, and Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
- MSN-Ed: Graduate ready to become a Certified Nurse Educator
- MSN/MBA: Earn a dual degree that will help you prepare to become a Chief Nursing Officer
Our MSN programs develop students personally, professionally and spiritually so they can engage the nursing field with a spirit of service and the Masters of Science in Nursing skills needed in today’s healthcare landscape.