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Nursing crisis looms as baby boomers age

By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- America could be facing a nursing shortage that will worsen exponentially as the population grows older.

The problem: Baby boomers are getting older and will require more care than ever, taxing an already strained nursing system.

Lab instructor Lisa Rubin leads a class at New York University's College of Nursing.

America has had a nursing shortage for years, said Peter Buerhaus, workforce analyst at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn. But by 2025, the country will be facing a shortfall of 260,000 RNs, he said.

"In a few short years, just under four out of 10 nurses will be over the age of 50," said Buerhaus. "They'll be retiring out in a decade. And we're not replacing these nurses even as the demand for them will be growing."

That's because nursing schools are already maxed out.

"We've got to find another portal to bring nurses into the profession," said Claire Zangerle, chief executive of the Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio and former chief nursing officer at the Cleveland Clinic. "We don't have enough nursing instructors, so therefore the capacity of nursing schools is very limited."

The nursing profession has benefited from the recession, which has prompted new nurses to sign up for school and older nurses to postpone retirement, Buerhaus said.

Some 243,000 registered nurses entered or re-entered the profession during the recession that began in 2007, he said, including many who were forced out of retirement by financial difficulties.

But as the economy improves that kind of growth is unlikely to continue. And experts stress that there will be a nursing shortage even if every nursing school is at capacity.

A lack of teaching staff is the biggest hurdle to minting new RNs, according to Cheryl Peterson, director of nursing practice and policy for the American Nurses Association

"The problem on the supply side is that our current nursing education capacity is at its limit," she said. "[Nursing schools] are pumping out about as many as they can."

Dr. Mary O'Neil Mundinger, the dean of Columbia University Nursing School in New York, said the number of applicants jumped 20% this year to about 400. She said the roster includes professionals seeking a career switch from Wall Street, law and even the opera.

"Making choices between these extremely well qualified applicants is really daunting," she said, noting that the school has capacity for only half the applicants.

Indeed, Claire Zangerle from the Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio said her niece spent two years on a waiting list before getting accepted into a nursing school.

It's hard to recruit and retain nursing instructors when they can usually make more money working in a hospital.

The average starting pay for an RN is about $56,000, according to the American Nurses Association. Mundinger said that the most ambitious graduates can earn as much as $90,000 if they're willing to work long hours, including weekends and night shifts, in busy metropolitan hospitals.

"They need to pay nursing faculty a wage that is attractive enough," said Peterson of the ANA, "You have nurses working in hospital units who are making more than the nurses in education."

Barry Pactor, international director of global health care for consulting company HCL International, agrees that more nurses should be trained within the U.S. system. But as a short term solution for this "huge shortage," he said the U.S. government should loosen immigration restrictions on foreign health care workers.

"I don't see this as foreign nurses taking American jobs, because these are vacancies that already exist and cannot be [filled] by nurses currently in training," he said. "We'd be filling in the gaps until the training can catch up with the demand." To top of page

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