Nursing Shortage

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Scores of young nurses learn their IVs from their catheters each year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital. But UAB’s nursing school has turned away nearly 100 qualified applicants in the last year because it didn’t have the people to teach them. Associate Dean Elizabeth Stullenbarger co-chairs a regional committee that surveys nursing faculty vacancies.

‘What we found is quite alarming. That there are approximately 500 to 600 nursing faculty who are leaving faculty positions either through retirements and resignations each year. Each year!’

And that’s just in the southern region. Nationwide the vacancy numbers are staggering and it’s only getting worse. More than half of all current nursing faculty are eligible for retirement in the next five years and younger nurses and nursing students aren’t stepping up to fill their ranks.

‘It’s not as glamorous.’

Barbara Woodring is associate dean for graduate education at UAB’s nursing school and President of the National Society of Pediatric Nurses.

‘The word professor doesn’t carry with it the same kind of aura that does a practicing nurse in an emergency room.’

But it’s not just the lack of glitz that dissuades many young nursing students from going into academe. A nursing faculty member with a PhD can expect to earn about $50,000 a year. Compare that to the $75,000 a nurse with a master’s degree can get at a hospital. It’s a no-brainer says nursing student Erin Rigney, especially for students who have student loans to pay.

‘You know, money is an issue for them. It’s an issue for them whether or not this hospital is going to pay them this or this hospital is going to pay them that.’

‘We are out there competing with them, we just don’t compete very well!’

Again, UAB’s Barbara Woodring.

‘I last year attempted to hire a doctoral faculty ‘ just out of her doctor program. My salary maximum that I could offer to her was tripled by a competing for-profit hospital who hired her as a vice president of patient services.’

And tight state budgets mean no raises for many state employees, including nursing faculty as UAB. The nursing faculty shortage isn’t purely an academic concern. It trickles down to patient care as well. Faculty members must supervise student nurses treating hospital patients. With the shortages, faculty members often find themselves juggling 8 students with two patients each. That’s 16 medical histories, medication charts, and other treatment regimes. Nursing student Erin Rigney says it can spread a faculty member pretty thin.

‘When I first started out it was difficult because you’d be like, where is she? This med has to be give at this time! And she has to come with me!’

Nursing school administrators worry that with such high student-teacher ratios they’ll graduate nurses who can’t pass the licensing exams and therefore won’t be able to practice. UAB nursing school administrators says it’s a frustrating circle, say UAB’s administrators. There aren’t enough faculty to teach nursing students’ but if they can’t graduate enough nursing students they won’t have a pool from which to draw new faculty members. There are some efforts underway to address the problem, including debt forgiveness for nursing faculty and quicker doctoral programs’ but these may only be band-aid solutions for a much bigger problem.