Illinois, like many states across the country, is expected to face a shortage of registered nurses in the coming year, in large part because there are not enough younger nurses prepared to replace retiring baby boomers.
One-third of Illinois nurses age 55 and older said in a voluntary survey (PDF) that they intend to retire in the next five years, leaving a gap that younger nurses won't immediately be able to fill. Younger nurses are particularly lacking in psychiatric, school, home health and community health nursing, and they're not preparing to become teachers, according to the survey, which RNs were given the option to complete during their yearly license renewal.
The survey's authors also expressed concern that younger nurses are disproportionately white and female, even though the state's population is becoming increasingly diverse.
The Illinois Center for Nursing led the survey with the help of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which handles nursing licenses. More than 50,000 RNs, about 31% of the state's nursing workforce, completed the survey.
It is well-known that the nation is in desperate need of nursing educators, and Illinois is no exception. The survey found that only 26% of surveyed nurses ages 26 to 34 were currently working toward their Ph.D., or 124 nurses.
But the biggest barrier to solving the nursing shortage is an academic capacity problem. Students in Illinois and across the country want to be nurses, but they're being turned away from schools who can't meet the demand: 78,000 applicants to bachelor and advanced-degree nursing programs were turned away last year because there weren't enough faculty available to teach them, according to a January survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Pam Brown, president and CEO of the Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing in Quincy, Ill., and president of the American Nursing Association's Illinois chapter, hopes the data will show lawmakers that the state needs to invest in nursing education.
“We can definitively say it's a problem and maybe we'll be more targeted” than states without nursing workforce data, Brown said, although she acknowledged that the baby boomer generation is simply bigger than the Millennial and Generation X populations.
Illinois lawmakers are eyeing higher-education cuts that will only make the situation worse, said Alice Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association, a union that represents about 3,500 nurses, mostly RNs and licensed practical nurses. Nursing schools need financial support so they can expand their programs to fill the shortage, she said.
“There needs to be a greater investment in education so that the qualified individuals who want to receive that training and receive those licenses can do so,” Johnson said.