Progress on the Nation’s Nursing Workforce

    • May 8, 2013

A new government report suggests that the nursing workforce is in a better position now to meet future health care needs than it was a decade ago.

The nursing workforce has grown larger, and is more highly educated and more diverse, according to a study released last week by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

That comes as good news for those working to transform the nursing profession to improve health and health care. The Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a national effort backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AARP, is rooted in a report about the future of the nursing profession that was released in 2010 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The Campaign’s goals include building the supply of nurses to curb looming shortages, making it easier for nurses to advance their education, and drawing more men and minorities into the profession, which remains predominantly white and female.

Such steps are needed to meet the growing demands for nursing care, the IOM said. That is because the population is living longer and managing more chronic conditions, new technologies are emerging that are prolonging life, and millions of new patients will be entering the health care system under health reform—all factors that will intensify pressures on the nursing workforce.

There are 2.74 million nurses practicing in the United States, and about 500,000 of them are expected to retire by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2020, the nation will need to prepare 1.2 million more nurses to meet projected needs, due to increased demand and nurses retiring or leaving the field.

The good news is that the nursing workforce grew substantially in the last decade, according to the study. In the 2000s, the number of registered nurses (RNs) grew 24 percent, and the number of licensed practical nurses (LPNs) grew 15.5 percent. Notably, that growth rate outpaced population growth; the number of registered nurses per capita grew 14 percent in the last decade.

There were also more nurses on the verge of entering the workforce, or in the so-called nursing pipeline. In 2011, more than 142,000 new nurse graduates passed the national licensure examination, up from about 69,000 in 2001.

Advancing Education

More nurses also chose to advance their education, which will help them provide the kind of highly skilled care needed to treat an increasing, and increasingly complex, patient population. At the beginning of the decade, 50 percent of the nation’s nurses held a bachelor’s degree or higher; at its end, the percentage had climbed to 55 percent.

Still, that percentage is far below educational targets laid out in the 2010 IOM nursing report. It recommends that 80 percent of the nursing workforce hold bachelor’s degrees or higher by 2020—a goal supported by the Campaign for Action.

The HRSA study findings suggest rapid growth in the number of bachelor’s-prepared nurses in the future. The number of graduate nurses with bachelor’s degrees taking licensure exams for the first time more than doubled between 2001 and 2011.

The nursing workforce is also slowly becoming more diverse. The percentage of non-white RNs rose from 20 to 25 percent over the past decade, according to the study. And the percentage of men in the profession crept up about 1 percentage point, to 9 percent.

That is another welcome finding for the Campaign for Action, which is working to diversify the nursing workforce so it can better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.