The Nursing Workforce of 2020: Well Trained, Well Paid, and — Actually, Who the Hell Knows

This morning’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:

I. THE NURSING SHORTAGE OF 2020

(This scenario draws from a talk that Vanderbilt University’s Peter Buerhaus gave two weeks ago at the U. of Maryland School of Nursing. Buerhaus still sees a shortage coming, though a less severe one than the shortage that he and two colleagues had predicted in a widely-cited 2000 paper.)

  • In June 2012, the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans never manage to do much to weaken the law. Tens of millions of Americans gain access to insurance, and the demand for nurses rises in tandem.
  • Some time around 2014, the general labor market finally recovers. There’s less desperation in the air. Sixty-year-old nurses are more likely to retire, and twenty-year-old college students who aren’t actually that interested in nursing go back to majoring in anthropology or accounting or whatever, because they’re reasonably sure they’ll find jobs.
  • The millions of soon-to-retire Baby Boomers utilize Medicare at rates similar to previous cohorts of 70-year-olds.
  • Changes in health care delivery mean that nurses and nurse practitioners are heavily deployed to provide primary care and to coordinate patients’ services.
II. THE NURSING GLUT OF 2020
  • In June, the Supreme Court strikes down the ACA’s insurance mandate. Mitt Romney wins the 2012 election and pushes his health proposals through Congress. In this scenario, at least 45 million fewer people have health insurance than would have been the case with an intact ACA.
  • The EU zone goes to hell, and the ensuing financial crisis means that the U.S. labor market stays miserable for years. College students continue to pour into health care fields, because that’s the one sector with better-than-zero growth.
  • The millions of soon-to-retire Baby Boomers utilize Medicare at significantly lower rates than previous cohorts of 70-year-olds. (Unlike the other items on this list, this one is good news.)
  • Changes in health care delivery don’t lead to a relative increase in the deployment of nurses and nurse practitioners. Accountable Care Organizations use social workers and other non-nurses to coordinate patients’ care across providers.

What will actually happen? Probably something in between, of course. (Or maybe the Yellowstone volcano will erupt and this will all be moot.)

We had better hope that it is something close to halfway in between. Both shortages and gluts are bad for patients and bad for the nursing profession. Nursing shortages, because patients are even more likely than usual to face understaffed units and overstretched nurses. Nursing gluts, because nurses are so afraid of unemployment that they don’t speak up about problems on their units.

(Photo via the Flickr user Christchurch City Libraries. Used under a Creative Commons license.)

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