Nursing Workforce Sees Surge in Young Entrants

This article published with permission from The Burrill Report.

The number of young people becoming full-time registered nurses has increased dramatically over the past decade, according to a new study published by Health Affairs. The trend should ease much of the concern over a projected nursing shortage in the United States.

From 2002-2009, the number of young people aged 23-26 entering nursing increased 62%, approaching numbers not seen in nearly three decades. If these new young nurses follow the same life-cycle employment patterns as those of past generations, they will become the largest cohort of registered nurses ever observed, according to the researchers from RAND Corporation, Vanderbilt University and Dartmouth College.

At the turn of the century, researchers predicted that the United States was in store for a shortage of nearly 400,000 registered nurses by 2020 as large numbers of registered nurses would retire and not be replaced by new entrants to the field. Those projections were based on findings that between 1983 and 1998, the proportion of the registered nurse workforce under age 30 dropped from 30% to 12%, while the average age of working nurses jumped from 37 to 42.

The new findings reverse a trend that saw the number of young registered nurses, ages 23 to 26, decrease nearly 47% to 102,000 in 2002 from a peak of 190,000 in 1979 as young women — the majority of the young people becoming nurses — began exploring other career opportunities.

If the number of people entering the profession continues to grow at today’s levels, it is projected that the absolute size of the registered nurses workforce will grow by approximately 24% by 2030 from 2009, which is roughly the rate of projected population growth for the same period.

“These findings were a real surprise and are a very positive development for the future health care workforce in the United States,” says David Auerbach, the study’s lead author and an economist at RAND. “Compared to where nursing supply was just a few years ago, the change is just incredible.”

The researchers caution, however, that projections of the future size of the registered nursing workforce depends on recent trends continuing. For now, the trends show continued projected growth into the future, but complicating factors, such as an oversaturation of the profession discouraging young people to pursue nursing as a career, may distort those figures. For the near future, at least, the researchers are confident that we will see continued growth in the nursing workforce.

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