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Arkansas State University

A Changing Nurse Workforce

Nursing is constantly evolving. The nursing workforce itself continues to undergo significant changes as more workers enter the field and others retire. According to the 2015 National Nursing Workforce Survey, today’s nurses are younger, more diverse and more likely to be male than they were even a few years ago. More than ever, members of minority groups are entering nursing, as are more graduates of foreign nursing programs. Education levels are increasing as more college graduates retrain, more nurses return to school and more students choose nursing majors.

These nurses are bringing with them a range of perspectives, experience and knowledge that enriches the field. Although the profession is growing, there is still plenty of room for new graduates. Today’s nursing workforce is experiencing rapid change and significant demands coming from a variety of sources.

Strong Demand for Nurses Continues

With a strong demand for highly qualified nurses, these new nurses are playing a vital role in today’s healthcare system. Many of the trends currently changing healthcare will likely continue for the foreseeable future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the new supply of nurses is causing a small amount of competition in some areas, but strong demand for new nurses will likely continue in the next decade as current nurses retire in the U.S.

Understanding workforce trends can help members of the public, policymakers, educators and other stakeholders make more informed decisions about the nursing profession. Since more licensed nurses are necessary (and likely will continue to be in the coming years), understanding the profession’s newest members may help the healthcare industry attract and retain additional qualified nurses.

Changing Age Demographics: Retiring Workers and New Graduates

A significant proportion of nurses are near retirement age. In the past, this contributed to nursing shortages in many care settings around the nation. By 2008, the majority of licensed nurses (85 percent) were working in the field, the highest rate recorded since 1977, when the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) conducted the first nursing workforce survey. Between 2004 and 2008, full-time employment among nurses increased as more nurses carried increasing workloads each week. During this period, most nursing graduates were working as nurses, and more new graduates stayed in the nursing profession.

An aging U.S. population is also increasing demand for nursing graduates. This older population will likely consume more healthcare services, leading to a need for more healthcare workers. With fewer workers available as a result of nursing retirements, demand for new nurses will continue. For these reasons, the BLS believes the need for nurses will be strong during the next ten years.

Overall, however, the nursing profession is gradually getting younger. Just 50 percent of the nursing workforce is over the age of 50 now, compared with 53 percent in 2013. This younger population of nurses will likely stay in the field as older nurses begin retiring.

Growing Diversity

Today’s nursing workforce is also becoming increasingly diverse. According to the National Nursing Workforce Study, 19.5 percent of the RNs responding said they identify themselves as racial or ethnic minorities. More recently licensed participants were even more likely to identify as minorities, showing that more members of racial and ethnic minority groups are entering the field. A full 6.7 percent of the nurses were foreign-educated and participate in the U.S. workforce. These trends will likely continue as more workers identifying as minorities join the nursing profession.

Among licensed practical nurses (LPNs), recent increases in diversity are even more pronounced. Among those LPNs licensed before 2000, 78.8 percent identify as white or Caucasian, with just 55.6 percent of newly licensed LPNs (between 2013 and 2015) indentifying as such.

More Men Becoming Nurses

Traditionally, careers in nursing primarily attracted women. While the majority of the nursing workforce is still female, a growing number of men are now entering the field. Before 2000, 5.8 percent of new nurses were male. This percentage more than doubled between 2013 and 2015, when men represented 14.1 percent of newly licensed nurses.

Educational Trends

BSN degrees are becoming increasingly common among new nurses, and many experienced nurses are completing RN to BSN programs. The BSN helps nurses advance in their careers in an increasingly competitive, information-driven and rapidly changing healthcare industry. Many healthcare employers now prefer to hire nurses who have BSN degrees, driving greater demand for BSN program graduates and leading many RNs to earn BSNs.

The need for nurses also motivated many workers outside the nursing profession to retrain and become nurses, bringing a greater number of college graduates with non-nursing degrees into the nursing profession. These trends are bringing considerable change to the typical education levels of nurses and are increasing the number of highly educated licensed nurses.

In 2000, around half of RNs held at least a bachelor’s degree. Between 2008 and 2010, this proportion increased by 5 percent to 55 percent of RNs. College graduates with non-nursing degrees are part of these statistics, so some of these nurses hold other nursing degrees such as ADNs, nursing diplomas and certificates. While these figures include degrees outside nursing, a full 42 percent of RNs reported beginning their careers with a BSN. Before 2000, just 33 percent of nurses entered the field as BSN degree holders. Today, more nurses are entering the profession with more education, making them eligible for more advancement opportunities, higher pay and greater responsibilities.

When new nurses enter the profession, they bring their unique insights and backgrounds. The face of the nursing profession is always evolving due to external pressures, changes in employer needs and standards, and changes in the U.S. population. A diverse, well-trained workforce of compassionate, highly qualified nurses helps improve healthcare and build tomorrow’s healthcare leaders. With more BSN-prepared nurses than ever before, this workforce is also better prepared to tackle the complex healthcare challenges that an aging U.S. population presents.

Learn more about the A-State online RN to BSN program.


Journal of Nursing Regulation: The 2015 National Nursing Workforce Survey

National Council of State Boards of Nursing: National Nursing Workforce Study

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Registered Nurses

The Wall Street Journal: Nurses Are Again in Demand

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