The Recession's Effect on Hospital Registered Nurse Employment Growth

Peter I. Buerhaus PhD, RN, FAAN; David I. Auerbach PhD, MS


Nurs Econ. 2011;29(4):163-167. 

In This Article


During the first decade of the new millennium, hospitals increased their employment of RNs by more than 400,000 FTEs, with most of the increase occurring in the years the economy was in recession and unemployment rates remained elevated in subsequent years (2001–2003, and 2007 to the present). These recent expansions in hospital RN employ ment are the largest in our full CPS dataset which extends back to 1973, and mostly reflect the influence of decreases in RNs' spousal employment and economic security on the decisions of RNs to participate in the nursing workforce.

Employment of older RNs accounted for a disproportionately large proportion of the substantial increase in RN employment during the last recession. In addition, the surge in hospital RN employment likely reflects the decisions of many retired RNs to return to work. Anecdotal reports of an end to the nursing shortage and of new graduates of nursing education programs having difficulty finding jobs in 2009, implies the increase in RN employment may have absorbed all the hospital jobs then available for nurses. The CPS indicates hospital FTE RN employment decreased nearly 20,000 FTEs in 2009 and then rebounded, particularly for younger RNs, by 40,000 FTE RNs in 2010. Though conclusions must remain tentative because of small sample sizes, those figures suggest a possible short-lived surplus in 2009 followed by improving employment conditions for new graduate RNs in 2010.

Looking over the longer-term, during the current decade the RN workforce will be dominated increasingly by RNs in their 50s. Because the current number of employed FTE RNs in this age group is so large, it will be challenging to fully replace these RNs with new entrants later in the decade though there are some signs that entry into nursing by younger RNs is on the rise (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Consequently, as many RNs retire in the years ahead, new hospital shortages are likely to develop. However, the looming threat of large retirements from the nursing workforce is masked by the lingering effects of the recent recession on the labor supply decisions of existing RNs. As long as near-term unemployment rates remain high, RNs' participation in the hospital RN labor market can be expected to remain at record levels.


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