Growing numbers of young people are entering the nursing profession, according to a study that may assuage fears of a future nursing shortage. The number of 23-to-26-year-old registered nurses jumped 62 percent between 2002 and 2009, according to research published in the December edition of the journal Health Affairs.
“This surge that we’re seeing, it’s major. It has huge implications,” said Rand economist David Auerbach, who led the study.
Researchers from Rand, Vanderbilt University, and Dartmouth College examined three decades of employment data from three government sources: the Current Population Survey, the American Community Survey, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
They found a surge in the number of registered nurses over the past decade. In 2002, there were 102,000 registered nurses ages 23 to 26, compared with 165,000 in 2009. The new numbers suggest that the supply of nurses will keep pace with population growth through 2030.
However, health care reform and other labor fluctuations in the health care system make it difficult to project just how many nurses the United States will need in the coming years, Auerbach said.
Declining numbers of young nurses in the 1980s and 1990s led to projections of a nursing shortage by 2020. The fear was that older professionals would retire without younger professionals rising to replace them.
But those fears may have been unfounded. “The earlier projections did not foresee the growing numbers of people entering nursing in their late 20s and 30s," Auerbach's team wrote. That change, combined with the surge in 23-to-26-year-olds entering the nursing profession, means that the registered-nurse workforce is increasing at a faster rate than predicted.
Expanded opportunities to enter the nursing profession, including accelerated certification programs, may account for the surge of young nurses, the report said. The recession and the decline in manufacturing jobs were also listed as possible reasons for the shift.
However, current projections for the number of nurses the nation will need in 2030 don’t take into account the expansion of health care services under 2010’s health care legislation. The Health Resources and Services Administration’s most recent estimates were made in 2004, before the health care law was passed.
The makeup of the health care workforce is also shifting over time. The number of physician assistants is also growing, and nurse practitioners are an increasing subset of overall registered nurses, Auerbach said. He noted that many organizations are experimenting with their staffing, such as running nurse-only clinics, and that yet more changes may be made as organizations respond to a projected physician shortage.