U.S. Faces Critical Nurse Shortage

The demand for nurses is expected to outstrip the number coming out of nursing schools in the coming years, as some 80 million baby-boomers near retirement age.

Although applications to nursing schools are up 40 percent from a decade ago, there aren't enough educators to train them.

Nursing educators are on average even older than their RN colleagues, and half of them are expected to retire within the decade.

At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Jean Cabral, 58, has been an intensive care nurse for more than 30 years. Last year, however, she injured her shoulder while trying to lift a patient.

"We are doing more for patients than we ever did before and there's only so much a body can do in 8 to 12 hour shift," she said. "This accident has given me an alarm bell; I'm not sure how long my body is going to last working in this tough environment."

Cabral has decided to try teaching. But recently she's had to take a 25 percent pay cut and isn't sure she will continue.

Nurses who get a higher degree can make a lot more money nursing than they can teaching. They are also choosing other higher paying jobs in biotech, insurance and the pharmaceutical industry.

"Why would I want to be an educator when my salary is 50 percent of my colleague who is VP of nursing in the local hospital?" asks Mary Jane Williams, who teaches nursing at the University of Hartford.

There's a lack of nurse educators in both the classroom and on the hospital floor. This has caused a bottleneck and most nursing programs have long waiting lists. In 2005, 147,000 qualified applicants were turned away from U.S. nursing schools.

"We're thriving, but we're also overwhelmed by trying to meet the demand for our school," said Judy Shindul Rothschild, a professor at the Boston College School of Nursing.

Last year, Boston College turned away 650 applicants to its nursing schools. This year, the college doubled its class size but, like most nursing programs, is struggling to find faculty.

"We beg, borrow and steal," Rothschild said. "Boston College is trying to come up with all sorts of benefits for our clinical faculty to entice them – football tickets, hockey tickets. I'm not above scrounging for anything to entice people because the money is not terrific."

Schools have raised faculty salaries in an effort to compete with more lucrative industry jobs.

Several states are also trying to address the issue, but the White House wants to cut federal aid to nursing schools. Many see this as a shortsighted plan.

"We are not going to forever have all this interest in nursing," said Peter Buerhaus, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University.

"The more we turn people away, the less likely they are to come back next year. We're not talking about a lot of money, were talking at most $1 billion, which is decimal dust," he said.

Even if the U.S. manages to train more nurses, the federal government estimates there will need to be a 90 percent increase in the number of nurse graduates to meet the demand.

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