Registered Nurses in Short Supply Bookmark and Share

April 14, 2007

From the April Labor Market Digest
Ensuring an adequate supply of registered nurses in Maine is a significant issue as numerous vacancies persist and employers report continued difficulty in attracting and retaining these healthcare professionals. These current labor market conditions largely result from the aging of the state’s population. As this aging occurs, the demand for healthcare services increases. However, Maine’s aging population not only affects those who need medical services, but also those who provide this care—and no healthcare occupation may be more affected by this than registered nurses.

As published in the Healthcare Occupations Report, a collaborative effort combining Department of Labor employment data and Department of Health and Human Services relicensure survey data, the age distribution of registered nurses is even more heavily weighted towards age groups nearing retirement than that of the total state population. Survey data indicates that 41.3% of registered nurses licensed in Maine are 52 years of age or older, and nearly two-thirds of this workforce is between the ages of 42 and61. As the first wave of baby-boomers begin to retire, an aging population will demand more services at the same time that increasing numbers of nurses are expected to retire. Replacing these retiring nurses will be difficult.

Education and training programs for registered nurses in Maine are confronted with more applicants than they can effectively cope with. Facility cost constraints and difficulty in recruiting faculty has exacerbated the inability to meet the demand. As a result, many students interested in nursing are “wait-listed” until the next entrance into the program becomes available.

This limited capacity to replace retiring workers with nursing program graduates suggests that other sources of labor supply should be pursued to complement school graduates. The recruitment of inactive, licensed registered nurses back into nursing and the retention of active nurses in the workforce will be integral in maintaining a consistent level of care and avoiding the critical care gaps associated with a nursing shortage.

While retaining active nurses may help mitigate the effects of a rapidly aging workforce, the recruitment of inactive, licensed professionals back into nursing could have a positive impact on the supply of labor. Survey data indicates that 10.3% of all licensed registered nurses in Maine are inactive—and this excludes those already retired and unlikely to return to work. With an estimated 17,500 registered nurses living in Maine, this suggests there are potentially1,800 nurses that could be recruited back into the profession. Generally, these nurses represent roughly three times the graduate capacity(610) of Maine’s nursing education programs during the 2004-2005 academic year.

Overall, the number of active nurses is impacted by several factors, but none greater than the aging nursing workforce. As vacancies persist and shortages emerge, the need to reexamine educational opportunities in nursing, as well as innovative strategies to recruit and retain nurses in the active workforce, become increasingly important in ensuring acceptable levels of care.