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Nursing Shortage

Reaches Critical Mass

Colorado Springs Millennial Belinda Bana dreams of becoming an R.N. “I’ve always felt a passion to help people and will someday get my degree,” she says. The working single mother of two has so far completed a few basic Pikes Peak Community College online courses for her associate’s degree in nursing. “I may have to start as a CNA, but my goal is a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN) -- which PPCC will soon offer,” she says. 

Bana’s journey begins not a moment too soon. 

The country’s nursing shortage is now critical – but it’s hardly a new concern. In the 1920s and 1930s, RNs faced poor working conditions and inadequate compensation. Post WW II employers attempted to provide better opportunities and higher wages to help lessen the shortage. But the challenge continues. Today local hospitals, rehab centers, senior communities and home health agencies are unanimous: The need for trained healthcare professionals – nurses, nurse practitioners and administrators-- has never been greater. And demand is forecast to exceed supply for decades to come. 

The good news: Registered Nursing (RN) job growth will see a 16 percent increase from 2014-2024, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Less encouraging: 649,100 replacement nurses are needed in the workforce for the same period, bringing total openings to a whopping 1.09 million. And the retirement rate is up among nursing faculty as well. 

So why, with increased focus from employers, higher education and workforce officials, does the problem persist? Industry analysts say the fault lies less with the lack of nurses and more with increased healthcare demand as growing numbers of uninsured citizens get access to care through community clinics, public health and mandated programs. Maintaining this highly technological, complex American health care system simply stretches the nursing workforce beyond its ability to handle the load. 

Today’s healthcare professionals are also aging. The Colorado Nursing Center for Nursing Excellence estimates 32 percent (20,000) of the state’s licensed RNs today are 55-plus. Finding new talent to replace these retirees is a big concern, especially in the face of the state’s projected population growth. Colorado will add 1 million new residents in the next 10 years. The state’s 65-plus population will also increase by 400,000. At the same time, young RN or BSN grads are increasingly choosing to become self-employed travel nurses, not tied to one hospital or healthcare facility. Assignments typically range from 8 to 20 weeks at a given location and can earn an RN $10,000 or more. 

Fortunately public and private sector initiatives to bolster the number of nursing trained graduates and licensees are in the works. The Pikes Peak Workforce Center, for example, receives federal and state grants designed to focus on high-demand job training. “We do a lot of convening and connecting with local healthcare employers. That includes hosting customized hiring events or special training workshops,” says PPWFC Executive Director and CEO Traci Marques, adding that workforce training frequently focuses on entry- level and career- change candidates. Training can range from 10 months to a year for a Medical Assistant or Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). The Center also helps candidates enter 2-year associate degree programs or retool for a bachelor’s degree.

Bethel College of Nursing at UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College are both developing innovative programs to accelerate graduation rates. “We’re offering dual enrollment so that nurses with an associate degree who are already practicing can earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree all online,” says Bethel Department Chair Deborah Pollard. The program includes a “cohort” relationship with UCHealth. “We very much value these partnerships,” says UCHealth Vice President of Human Resources Jeff Johnson.

Johnson also works with recruiters to fill entry level CNAs and medical assistants and degreed, licensed RNs, BSNs, nurse practitioners (NPs) and nursing administrator positions. There are at least 1,000 openings for nurses in the Pikes Peak region right now,” he says, adding that competition for top candidates – especially with 2-or 4-year degrees is strong. 

Brookdale Village at Skyline Skilled Unit Administrator Helen Whitener agrees. “I wish we could find dozens to hire. Like so many here in the Pikes Peak region, we welcome any programs that generate more nurses.”

For those serious about a nursing career, help is available from hospitals like Memorial and Children’s, Johnson says. Employees on the job a year or more and who meet hourly criteria are eligible for scholarships and tuition assistance. And all employees are eligible, beginning on date of hire. Financial aid ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 per year for qualified courses, depending on years of service. Students must maintain a grade of “C” or better. “And those employees enrolled in nursing school can also apply for scholarships,” he explains.

Sounds like a great opportunity, Belinda Bana says. “I’d be very interested in learning more.”