Nebraska faces nursing shortage

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June 3rd, 2011

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Lincoln, NE – Nebraska doesn’t have enough nurses, but right now some nurses can’t find work. That shortage is expected to get worse, but some who want to be nurses in the future can’t get into nursing schools. It’s an issue that’s complicated and concerning for the state’s medical community.

According to the Nebraska Center for Nursing’s latest report, the state needed about 1,900 more licensed practical nurses and registered nurses in 2010 than were available. That same report predicts the shortage will grow to 5,500 in ten years. Rural areas are the hardest hit, but the problem that’s “far-reaching” Diana Baker, executive director of the Nebraska Center for Nursing, is what’s to blame for the shortage.

UNMC College of Nursing professor Julie Chamberlain (left) with students. (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska Medical Center)

Baker said, “Women are looking at becoming computer specialists or engineers and not looking at nursing as a profession, where women in my age bracket were more looking at being a nurse or being a teacher. Now we’re also in the baby boomer era where those people my age and older are starting to retire at exorbitant numbers.”

More than half of all Nebraska nurses are expected to retire by 2020 and there’s another reason for the shortage. Although enrollments have grown in recent years, nursing programs around the country, including the sixteen in Nebraska, are still turning away students. Virginia Tilden, the dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Nursing, had a reason for turning applicants away. “It’s not because people aren’t interested in becoming nurses,” she said. “We turn away fifty percent of qualified applicants. The real squeeze on the pipeline is the shortage of faculty.”

The biggest reason is that faculty salaries are lower than what people can earn when they are out in practice. About twenty-percent lower, according to Tilden. She hopes new UNMC programs like a doctor of nursing practice degree, and existing programs like a nurse educator degree track will be solutions.

Right now, some nurses can’t find work either because the economy has slowed hiring at health care facilities or forced older nurses to delay retirement. Torri Merten, a nursing coordinator of clinical education at the Bellevue Medical Center and also president of the Nebraska Nurses Association offered her take on the issue.

“You know, we’re talking about this huge nursing shortage coming up and we’ve got all these people through the nursing programs and then the new grads are really finding a hard time finding new graduate positions,” Merten said. “We have had a number of new grads, you know, that have called us on a regular basis looking for employment. We’ve had a couple that have been out as long as even a year out of employment.”

Merten said, it’s important to find ways, like internships, to keep new graduates involved in nursing until jobs open up, especially for nurses who don’t want to leave Lincoln or Omaha for rural areas where there are openings. If predictions hold true though, this won’t be a concern for long.

UNMC’s Virginia Tilden said, “The downturn in the economy is masking the long term serious shortage.” A shortage Diana Baker of the Nebraska Center for Nursing said “becomes a problem because as a result some nursing duties are then handled by unlicensed staff that doesn’t have the education and background of a nurse.”

Baker added, “You see a lot of elderly people in the home that don’t have adequate diets, they don’t have money for medications, there’s not a helper there to help them plan their care so those types of things would very much inflict some hardships on them. Young mothers with new babies may not be able to get the nutrition that they need during pregnancy. They may not get the education they need for child rearing when there’s shortages like this.”

Baker hopes efforts underway will ease the nursing shortage. From the Center for Nursing, this includes more outreach with students and school counselors about nursing careers. All with the hope of keeping Nebraska from being more than 5,000 short of predicted demand for nurses in the year 2020.

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