Where Have All The New Nursing Graduates Gone?

As more Baby Boomer nurses begin to discover the freedoms of retirement or change to a less stressful career, healthcare recruiters are challenged with replacing them. One logical choice is a younger candidate, possibly a recent graduate, who will be able to contribute to an organization for years to come.  But as recruiters begin to seek out new grads to fill these vacancies, they find a sparse candidate pool – a nationally occurring phenomenon.  Where have all the new graduates gone?

When it comes to the nursing challenge, it’s all in the numbers.  The nursing shortage in the United States is projected to grow to 260,000 RNs by 2025.  This shortage will be double what the industry has ever seen since the mid-1960s.  In August, 28,000 new jobs were added in ambulatory care settings and in nursing and residential care while 216,000 (nonfarm payroll) positions were eliminated nationwide.  By 2016, nursing will be the number one profession in the country in terms of job growth with more than 587,000 new positions being created. 

These statistics paint an extremely positive outlook for nursing professionals.  You’d think that young people everywhere would be eager to enter into a career with such an abundance of available jobs.  And in fact, there has been a heightened interest in nursing.  In 2008, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate programs in nursing increased by 2.2%, translating into 3,069 more entry-level students.  Since 1980, the total number of RNs has grown at every 4-year interval. However, the nursing population growth rate has recently slowed.  From 2000 – 2004, there was only a 7.9% growth.  For comparison, the nursing population grew by 14.2% from 1992 – 1996.  Obviously, this small surge in enrollment and nursing population growth will not satisfy the projected demand for nurses.  The Health Resources and Services Administration officials say, “To meet the projected growth in demand for RN services, the U.S. must graduate approximately 90 percent more nurses.”

However, most people who want to become nurses can’t.  The acceptance rate for nursing school is only 42.3%.  Despite the urgent need for more new grads, 49,948 qualified applicants were rejected from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2008 due to a lack of faculty, classroom space, clinical sites, preceptors and budgetary constraints.  It’s estimated that 56% of nursing schools have vacancies and need additional faculty; 21.1% of nursing schools do not have vacancies but need additional faculty members.  The faculty shortage will only increase as professors age and retire.  Currently, the average age of professors is 59.1 years old.  In hopes of combating this issue, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Nurse Education Expansion and Development Act, nicknamed the NEED Act, to aid nursing schools in increasing faculty.  Approval would result in Capitation Grants for nursing schools to hire more professors and accept more students. 

Despite the high demand for nurses, there are a few students graduating from nursing school who can not find employment.  Because of the economic downturn, retired nurses are returning to the workforce, nurses previously working part-time shifts or per diem are choosing to work full-time and nurses who were voluntarily unemployed are returning to the workplace.  These more experienced nurses are taking open positions that have been traditionally filled by new graduates.  The adverse economy also affects patients’ healthcare decisions.  Many people are choosing to forego medical insurance and are opting out of preventative healthcare, non-emergency care and elective surgeries.  This means there is a lesser demand for nursing services and many hospitals have implemented hiring freezes and some have even terminated members of their staff.

So, where have the new grads gone?  In short, they’ve gone nowhere.  There’s just an exaggerated demand for them.  Until more funding becomes available to educate more students and those students graduate, recruiters are stuck trying to attract new grads with a limited supply of candidates.  More importantly, once a new grad is hired, they must be retained. That’s no easy task given that 37% of newly licensed nurses desire to change jobs after only one year and 24% plan to change jobs after two years’ tenure.   

It’s best to invest in the recruitment and retention of new grads now, while the state of the economy is preventing many older nurses from retiring.  Once the economic winds change, more Boomer nurses will leave the workplace.  Nurses who were once voluntarily unemployed will once again end their employment and nurses previously working part-time hours may choose to revert back to their previous schedules, leaving many more nursing vacancies than their currently are.  All of these factors will result in an ever greater demand for new graduates.  Will your organization be left understaffed?

Thomas Delorme
Written by Thomas Delorme

VP, Digital Products & Strategy

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