By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
While the pandemic has spotlighted the essential and difficult work nurses perform, it has also underscored—and worsened—the nursing shortage.
According to The American Nursing Association, in addition to the 3.9 million nurses in the US, an additional million are needed to become adequately staffed. The Bureau of Labor statistics shows that more than 300,000 additional nursing jobs will be added to the market by 2028, making nursing the third fastest growing career for adding new openings.
All these statistics were in effect before the pandemic upended the industry.
Coronavirus has added additional stressors to healthcare, especially to nursing.
“Without a doubt, the pandemic is making the nursing shortage worse,” said Jamie Volkenner. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing and is a member of the Professional Nurses Association of Western New York. She works at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo. “It’s been said, more oftentimes than not through tired, defeated eyes, ‘I didn’t sign up for this pandemic when I became a nurse.’ No one did. No one planned this.”
She feels like direct care nurses are on the frontlines of a war—a conflict against illness that constantly changes with new rules, news and developments nearly daily. While nurses manage that uncertainty with aplomb, they must also put up with the knowledge of people who don’t care.
“They are not taking the proper precautions, placing more and more lives at risk,” Volkenner said. “It has been over a year now, with COVID numbers rising and falling, giving both fear and hope in waves. That being said, we can’t control the rest of the world, we can only enforce the rules, put on our scrubs and mask, walk into those hospitals as the heroes we are, and fight this fight.”
The dynamics of bedside nursing have changed since the pandemic began. With fewer visitors, many people must rely upon nurses for their emotional support. That places another emotional burden on nurses.
These factors are contributing to nurses leaving the profession or moving away from much-needed bedside nursing into indirect roles.
Pay can also be a reason nurses leave to working in a more remunerative area of nursing than the bedside or start their own businesses consulting, private nursing or coaching.
Demographic shifts also affect the nursing shortage. About 660,000 baby boomer nurses were working in 2020, about half of the number in their cohort in 2008, according to www.healthaffairs.org. As they age, these retirees will add to the pool of people needing more care and they are not being replaced quickly enough by new nurses.
The availability of nursing programs limits the number of people receiving training to become nurses. That often stems from a shortage of nursing faculty. Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents to the 2019-2020 American Association of Colleges of Nursing stated that faculty or clinical preceptors were the reason behind limiting their programs.
Since nurses need more education to become nurse educators, that hinders many nurses from shifting to academia, according to Patricia Losito, who has a master’s degree in nursing and a doctorate in education. She serves as executive dean nursing at Erie Community College.
“It’s difficult to find qualified nurses to teach, typically because the entry level pay for faculty is not that of an entry level nurse,” she said. “Our associate degree nurses make more than master’s prepared nurses at the faculty level.”
Many nurses shift to academia because they want more stable hours and working conditions, not for the pay. These nurses are usually older, more experienced workers. That means as the baby boomer generation retires, fewer nurse educators will be available.
“Many schools have decreased enrollment because they don’t have the faculty,” Losito said.