WITH ALL THE RIGHTFUL concerns these days about U.S. job losses, the structural shift from manufacturing to lower-paying services and the export of jobs overseas, it's striking that certain well-regarded, well-paying jobs are going unfilled for want of workers.
These jobs initially require just two years of post-secondary schooling, start around $40,000 a year with all kinds of benefits, and are virtually impossible to move offshore. But despite some recent progress, vacancies are so rampant in this field that it employs thousands of foreign-born workers.
The job: nursing, the pivotal link in the U.S. health care delivery system and a profession in which national shortages reached a crisis by the end of the 1990s -- the result of rising demand, an aging work force, flat pay and high turnover from job stresses.
With global forces rapidly remaking the American economy, education is widely cited as the key to staying well-employed, and this is perhaps the best example of a relatively moderate amount of schooling opening doors to an almost guaranteed good job. Certain well-paying American industries may be contracting, but registered nurses are in such demand that they can earn more than unionized autoworkers.
A wave of publicity about the nursing shortage, recruitment campaigns (particularly one backed by Johnson & Johnson), better pay and retention incentives, increased federal funding (thanks in part to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland), and more state scholarships (including in Maryland) have eased the crisis. Total growth in RNs in 2002 and 2003 was believed the largest since the onset of Medicare in the 1960s.
But high percentages of these recently hired nurses were returning RNs soon to retire or foreign-born nurses; nursing schools also lacked the capacity to accept suddenly rising numbers of applicants. So the crisis isn't going away. Many Maryland hospitals run 10 percent RN vacancy rates. Nursing educators say Maryland nursing schools turn away about 2,000 qualified applicants each year for lack of trained instructors.
By 2012, the state could be short 17,000 RNs, or 27 percent of the demand, according to a University of Maryland study last year. National vacancy projections are similar, predicting a shortfall of about 800,000 RNs of the 2.8 million nurses needed by 2020.
Nationally, many different actors have been trying to chip away at this problem -- since 2000 in Maryland mostly under the umbrella of a statewide nursing commission. This fall, one new initiative smartly targeting the vexing bottleneck at the state's nursing schools is a fund set up by the Governor's Workforce Investment Board to hand out $1.5 million in scholarships to RNs to go back to school to become nursing instructors and to other health care workers to become nurses.
The work force board figures that 40 new nursing instructors could educate 800 additional students a year, which would go a long way to meeting Maryland's RN shortage. The state's RN programs, at 15 community colleges and nine baccalaureate colleges, should tie into this new effort by lining up to hire these new nursing educators and by finding the classroom space and clinical settings to expand enrollments. Otherwise, good jobs -- on which the state's health depends -- may still go wanting.