Public Policy Forum Blog

Addressing Wisconsin’s Projected Nursing Shortage

Two years ago, in a report that “mapped” the state’s expenditure of workforce development dollars, the Public Policy Forum also called attention to Wisconsin’s projected future worker shortages. We cited Department of Administration estimates that Wisconsin’s working age population will peak in 2020 but then gradually decline through at least 2035, creating a possible shortage of workers depending on growth in the state economy.

In a Research Brief released this morning, we focus on the specific workforce challenges in the field of nursing.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 525,000 registered nurses (RNs) will leave the profession between 2012 and 2022 and the national RN workforce will need to expand from 2.71 million to 3.24 million. Similar data indicate, meanwhile, that Wisconsin will need to grow its RN workforce by 24% between 2010 and 2020.

The need for new RNs is triggered by several factors. First, a rash of retirements in the registered nursing profession over the next 10 years is expected—the current average age of an RN is 47 and roughly one-third are age 50 or older. In addition, overall demand for health care is expected to continue to increase, as provisions in the Affordable Care Act are enabling more people to access care at the same time that the aging of the “baby boomer” generation is creating a large elderly cohort with attendant health care needs.

Our Research Brief reviews the educational pipeline for nurses in Wisconsin and finds that pipeline may need a boost. Not only is there a need for more nurses, but the health care profession also is demanding nurses with higher education levels. That poses a particular challenge in that most colleges and universities lack sufficient doctorate-level nurses in faculty positions to provide such education.

To address this virtual “Gordian knot,” we suggest consideration of three strategies:

  • Expanding the state’s Nurses for Wisconsin program, which provides financial support to a small number of nurses each year who would like to pursue a graduate degree, but who face the reality that they could leave education and immediately enhance their financial stability. Because the program provides both educational support and incentivizes participants to make a teaching commitment, it also helps to address the shortage of nursing faculty.
  • Creating opportunities within college and university faculty settings for graduate-prepared nurses who do not possess PhDs, but who still could play a role in educating nurses, such as by running simulation labs, teaching practice-based classes, and overseeing overall student development.
  • Bolstering collaboration between health systems and academia by, among other things, expanding “bridge” programs that support nurses who are already employed in health care settings and who wish to progress to a higher degree.

The full Research Brief can be accessed here.  This and a related project on philanthropic funding for nursing education were commissioned by the Wisconsin Center for Nursing with the support of the Faye McBeath Foundation.

Rob Henken