The imagery of COVID-19 speaks volumes — nurses weary from working long shifts, faces bearing marks from medical masks. Now, perhaps more than ever before, the essential role nurses play is being recognized. But burnout from the pandemic could increase an already growing shortage of nurses, further threatening America’s health.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the shortage was evident. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be about 210,400 registered nurse openings each year between 2018-2028 to replace workers who retire or leave the field. These openings will need to be filled to combat the shortage. Several factors have caused concern around the inability to staff these critical professionals, including an aging workforce and population, high turnover and a lack of nursing faculty.
University of Phoenix recently conducted a nationwide survey to dive deeper into the factors impacting nurse education. The survey found that 61 percent of nurses want to return to school, but monetary limitations (71 percent) and lack of time (52 percent) were barriers to pursue additional education. The survey also highlighted the need for nurse educators, of which nine in 10 respondents agreed is critical to the advancement of today’s nurses.
Aligning with barriers of time and money, about three in four respondents said to help nurses pursue higher education, nursing leadership can provide flexible scheduling to accommodate school demands (77 percent). For 66 percent, this means that online learning opportunities would need to be an option to move forward in their academic progressions, and 67 percent said they would require the ability to work at their same job while going to school.
Dr. Kathleen Winston, registered nurse (RN), dean of the College of Nursing, said nurses are not deterred by these circumstances and leadership can play a very important role in helping with the balance of a nurse’s work and school schedule.
“As a leader or supervisor, encouragement can come through sharing your own experiences as well as creating support groups,” Winston said. “For example, if you have three employees working for you who are also going back to school, consider setting up a group for them to have a place to express and discuss their shared experiences.”
"Once a professional RN reaches a level where they are interested in becoming a nurse educator, they bring breadth and depth of experience to their advanced degree. If you have had a wonderful career, you can now share with a new and next generation of nurses who need your expertise, guidance, encouragement and support.”
— Dr. Kathleen Winston RN, dean of the College of Nursing, University of Phoenix
Winston said primary leadership should come from nursing faculty, who are critical in creating the next generation of nurses. But, faculty shortages across the country are limiting student capacity, effecting impact. A 2018-19 report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) found that more than 75,000 qualified nursing school applicants were turned away due to faculty shortages. According to the UOPX survey, 45 percent of nurses believe there is a shortage and nearly three in 10 say little is being done to fix it.
Encouraging nurses to pursue faculty positions could help improve the shortage, but respondents to the survey were not interested in becoming one. While 91 percent of the nurses agree that nursing faculty is critical to advancement only 36 percent said they are interested in becoming a nurse educator due in part to satisfaction with their current role’s financial compensation.
Winston acknowledged that financial compensation for nurse educators isn’t necessarily enticing compared to other alternatives in nursing. She said the profession does have other perks, such as flexibility, autonomy and a high level of professionalism.
“By the time someone is at the professional level to be a nurse educator, they aren’t just out of college,” said Winston. “They bring depth and breadth and an advanced degree. If you have had a wonderful career, you can now share with a new generation who need your expertise, guidance, encouragement and support.”
Joint appointment opportunities allow nurses to still stay active in their field. Nurse educators are required to practice in some way to maintain their certification. For some educational institutions, faculty who teach or maintain office hours during the week can still maintain their certification by being in the field two days a month, usually on the weekends.
Winston encouraged working nurses interested in becoming nurse educators to reach out to nursing programs in their area. She also suggested pulling up job descriptions for nurse educators to see if the qualifications align with your nursing experience.
“You possess the skills and talents that can translate into nursing education, especially if you have had a wonderful professional experience and know you can make a difference,” Winston said.
 This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of University of Phoenix between February 18 – March 3, 2020 among 508 nurses who are US residents, ages 18 and older, and currently employed full-time as a registered nurse, clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner, nurse manager/supervisor, staff nurse or nurse case manager. Figures were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.