Nurse staffing crisis averted? Thank the millennials

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

It's your friendly neighborhood millennial here, back with some exciting news about the age cohort that's been mystifying employers and apparently annoying everyone else over the past decade or so — we might have just helped the healthcare industry avoid a huge problem.

That problem is that pesky workforce shortage you may have heard about, brought on in part by a mass exodus of baby boomer nurses reaching retirement age. According to a new study in Health Affairs, millennials are flocking to the nursing profession in droves, which may help avert a forecasted shortage in registered nurses.

Baby boomer RNs delaying their retirements due to the economic uncertainty that plagued the early 2000s helped hold off on that shortage, researchers from Montana State University and Dartmouth College wrote in the study. But a “surprising surge of interest” in RN jobs among millennials may have pulled the profession back from the brink once again.

The results of the study found that millennials are nearly twice as likely (186%) than baby boomers to become an RN, with the younger age cohort expected to dominate the industry during the 2020s. Someone born in the late 1980s was also found to be 65% more likely to become a nurse than someone born in 1955.

Why is this surge happening? The researchers offer a few suggestions, such as millennials coming of age during economically tumultuous times. That upbringing may drive them to a profession with steady earning, low unemployment rates and opportunities to move around the country and take on new roles in an ever-changing and growing industry. The profession's “meaningful work” and national initiatives to sell younger adults on the job may have helped as well.

Now this “surprising embrace” of nursing  by millennials, as the study's authors put it, won't erase the industry's workforce woes entirely. Millennials' entry rates into the profession appeared to have reached a plateau, and baby boomers' retirements are still expected to cause a hit to workforce growth rates. The researchers also warn that waning interest in RNs jobs among younger millennials or the next age cohort may cause a “pig in a python” effect, with a “large bulge of aging workers” carrying the industry.

“These workforce patterns are occurring in a dynamic healthcare environment,” the researchers write. “Nevertheless, a more slowly growing workforce and the loss of an experienced cohort of RNs should be on the minds of provider and payer organizations as they transition to new care delivery and payment models in the next decade.”

While the healthcare profession prepares to say goodbye to some of its aging workers, it's important to keep in mind the preferences and goals of the incoming millennial workforce — there are a lot more of them on their way to your organizations than you may think.

Follow Staff Writer Emily Mongan @emmongan.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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