New Nursing Shortage

This is an op-ed I did for Nurses’ Week that ran in newspapers across the country.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.  I’d love to hear your experiences about getting jobs as new grads, or even veteran nurses.

Nursing shortages? They’re supposed to be yesterday’s news. In a bad economy, nurses whose husbands or wives have lost their jobs are hanging on to theirs’, with retirement savings wiped out, nurses are delaying their own. According to American hospitals, all this means that we have plenty of nurses at the bedside. Remember those alarms bells that rang at the turn of the new century, warning of catastrophic nursing shortages? Well, they’ve all have been turned off. Maybe we will short a couple hundred thousand RNs by 2020, but for now –not to worry.

As we celebrate this year’s Nurses’ Week, we should ignore those convenient bromides and begin to worry – big time.

First of all, the nursing shortage that has been declared a thing of the past is very much present in hospitals today. To cut their budgets, most hospitals are not hiring enough nurses to adequately care for the kind of intensely sick patients that fill hospital beds today. These are patients who are receiving invasive procedures and toxic treatment – patients who need intense monitoring by nurses. They may not be getting the attention they need because nurses are assigned so many patients — – say six or eight on day shift or nine or maybe even more at night rather than four or five. Even though hospitals may record no RN vacancies, at these kind of staffing levels, patients are still experiencing a shortage of necessary nursing care.

What’s more, hospital hiring policies are plugging the pipelines that produce new expert nurses. To put it simply, very few hospitals are hiring newly minted RNs today. New graduates from nursing schools all over the country are reporting difficulty finding jobs. Nurse managers tell me their hospitals just aren’t hiring new grads. “I’m only allowed to hire experienced nurses, which I am having a hard time finding. I can’t hire any new nurses,” a nurse manager at a teaching hospital complained.

This, of course, creates a patient care catch- 22. If hospitals won’t hire new graduates, the new grads can’t get experience. If they can’t get experience, then whom will hospitals hire when experienced nurses leave their positions? And since the average age of the RN is 47, a lot of RNs will be retiring in a few years, no matter how bad the economy is.

To make matters worse, nurse managers tell me that hospitals are not expeditiously filling positions left vacant when an RN quits or retires. As one nurse manager at a major hospital in the Northeast told me, “They won’t allow us to fill a position once we know someone is leaving. We can only fill it when they’ve left. Then it can take up to a year to go through the search and paper work to get someone in that position. So we’re working short for an entire year.”

For working nurses all this will sound terribly familiar. And just as happened during the 1990s, these practices are bound to produce another catastrophic nursing shortage in only a few years. The fundamental problem is that politicians, policy makers and health care administrators don’t seem to understand that it takes years – at least eight to ten –to produce an expert nurse. Hospitals seem to think you can turn on the spigot and get hot and cold running nurses. Then, when your budget gets tight, you can turn it off and, when its convenient, turn it on again. That’s the kind of magical thinking that got us into trouble in the 1990s. Unless hospitals are forced to change their ways, as baby boomers like myself get older and sicker, there may not be anyone there to answer the buzzer.

Showing 4 comments
  • Christine

    I’m one of those newly minted nurses who cannot find a job, though since I graduated in 2009, I’m no longer shiny; stale” is another way I’ve heard my situation described. I was an excellent student and earned the highest award of the nursing department at my school, but have been unable to move beyond student nurse to nurse. I did have a job that I left after 1 month because it twas unsafe, for me as a new nurse and for the patients. No one will hire me for any other position in allied health that would give me much desired and valuable patient contact experience because they fear I quit “once a nursing job comes along.” I now volunteer my time in a free medical clinic that operates entirely with volunteer staff. That’s just my story; I’m sure there are many others like me.

  • Kerri


    I am a stale nurse. I got a position right after graduating at a hospital. I then moved onto another position and after 2 years, I became a stay-at-home mom.

    I have looked solidly for one year.

    It’s been a difficult role having this degree and no one will hire me. I really don’t know what to do other than return to college and begin a different career. Nursing is not what I thought.

  • Disillusioned Dixieland Nurse

    I am just looking at this post. The grass is not much greener for experienced nurses these days either. The hospital is a pressure cooker these days. We are being forced to perform more non-nursing tasks, without support of ancillary staff like unit secretaries and supply techs. We are being given more and more nonessential charting to complete, too. It’s getting insane. I am saddened to say I would not recommend this job (I can’t bear to call it a career anymore since we are treated more like robots now) to anyone. I used to love this. Now, I’m so stressed out before I go into work that I’m nauseated, wondering what I’m wallking into. I don’t even have time to catch up on intra-facility education during work hours anymore.

  • red1234

    I have been a nurse for 30 yrs. in the past 10 I have changed jobs for different reasons my heart goes out to everyone new and old nurses I blame some of this on the hospitals many travel nurse agencies say they wont even take you unless you have worked in the hospital for the last year Why do we have a license if no one will hire us???? think our own states should be able to have the power to do something to help us Its all a bumch of crap if you ask me

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