At least since the 1990s, the U.S. has faced a growing shortage of registered nurses. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in 2020 the demand for nurses could exceed the supply by 40 percent if nothing is done to stop this trend. The 20th century has seen recurrent shortages, but this one is different, in part because of an unprecedented demographic squeeze. The workforce made up of those aged 20 to 35, the prime recruiting pool for nurses, will decline at the same time baby boomers begin to reach retirement and consume medical services at a faster rate. But perhaps a more important factor is the low status of nurses. At one time, low status was far less of a deterrent, but now, when virtually all professions are open to women, nursing has become a relatively unattractive career choice. Moreover, the work is physically demanding: it is so strenuous that nurses generally cannot work much beyond their mid-50s. Indeed, the top concerns of nurses are their increasing workload and long hours.
Furthermore, pay lags behind other occupations that have similar educational requirements: an elementary schoolteacher, for example, earned $14,000 more than a nurse in 2001, according to the DHHS. Registered nurses are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than ever: currently, almost 500,000 RNs do not work in nursing.
This article was originally published with the title Nurses in Short Supply.