When the commencement ceremonies have concluded, the graduation parties are over, and the relatives have left town, many nursing graduates will wake up to an unexpected reality: a tough job market.
This is surprising because some health experts warn that a nursing shortage, with dire consequences, is upon us. Others say the nursing shortage has been averted, and that the supply of nurses is meeting demand. The truth is both, and neither.
In fact, the recession has given us a temporary reprieve, due to lower demand for elective health services and lower production of nurses. But that short-term bandage is about to be yanked off, and, unless we act quickly, what lies ahead will be painful for patients and the entire health-care system.
Long considered a recession-resistant, if not recession-proof, profession, nursing has become a competitive field in some areas of the country. Some hospitals are laying off workers or closing their doors, which eliminates nursing jobs. At the same time, more older nurses are postponing or even coming out of retirement because their savings have all but vanished or their spouses have lost their jobs. As a result, we are seeing a temporary increase in the ranks of nurses and a decline in nursing vacancies, which is making it harder for some unemployed nurses to find jobs.
But a long-term nursing shortage persists, and the economic downturn threatens to exacerbate it in the coming years. That's because the recession is creating the false impression that the shortage is over, generating complacency in the health-care industry and prompting aspiring nurses to think twice before enrolling in nursing schools. That's precisely the opposite of what needs to happen to avert the crisis.
The shortage is real. A large portion of the nursing workforce is nearing retirement, and older nurses who stay on the job for a few extra years or return to work after retirement will soon leave the profession as well. When they do, they will take decades of wisdom and expertise with them.
Sadly, many of these seasoned nurses won't have a chance to transfer their knowledge to the next generation, because there are not enough nurses in the pipeline to take their place. One key reason is that there aren't nearly enough faculty members at nursing schools to train the next generation.
The nursing shortage couldn't come at a worse time. Baby boomers are aging, developing more chronic conditions that will cause their health-care needs to grow dramatically, which will require a larger nursing workforce.
Unless we act now, we are heading for a nursing catastrophe that will undermine the quality of health care for millions of people in this region and across the country.
This catastrophe will affect businesses, too. A lack of nurses means lower-quality health care for employees, and that translates into billions of business dollars lost due to lower productivity and higher absenteeism in the workplace.
Put simply, a scant nursing workforce means businesses in the region and elsewhere will be less able to stay profitable. If the nurse shortage is not reversed, our region's already struggling economy will suffer even more.
To curb and, we hope, reverse the effects of a nursing shortage tomorrow, we need sensible solutions today. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce are launching an initiative designed to put more faculty in place at New Jersey nursing schools. The idea is that more nursing educators will be able to train more nurses to meet the region's future demands.
We believe this New Jersey Nursing Initiative has the potential to transform the nursing workforce to help the region's citizens and businesses weather the coming health-care storm. We also hope the initiative will serve as a model as the nation at large grapples with similar problems.
The initiative's slogan is "So a nurse will be there for you." And that is our goal: high-quality health care for everyone.
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Joan Verplanck is President of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. For more information on the New Jersey Nursing Initiative, see www.njni.org.