Tsunami Warning: Massive RN Retirements Coming

Peter McMenamin, PhD


April 09, 2014

The Approaching Wave of Nurse Retirements

Rapid job growth in nursing and a pending tsunami in nurse retirements will create a need for more than 1 million new registered nurses (RNs) for the 10-year period ending in 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) new Employment Projections for 2012-2022.[1] Through 2022, the healthcare and social assistance sector is now projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.6%, adding 5 million jobs and accounting for nearly one-third of the total projected increase in jobs. By 2022, total employment of RNs and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) will increase by 574,400 jobs. The BLS also projected that 555,100 RNs and APRNs would retire or otherwise leave the labor force during that time -- the tsunami at hand.

The large number of retirements is due in part to a historical confluence of events from the 1970s. The Comprehensive Health Manpower Training Act of 1971[2] substantially increased the availability of funds for nurse training in the mid-1970s. (Title VIII funds for nurse education would not exceed the 1973 levels until 2009.) At the same time, the "Women's Lib" movement was increasing the number of then nontraditional occupations accessible to educated women, drawing large numbers of women away from applying to nursing schools in the late 1970s. Those who had already headed down that path were unlikely to have changed course, but the changes in the pipeline would not have become evident for another 5 to 7 years. The result was a supercohort of RNs who entered the profession from 1978 to 1987, in their first jobs after becoming a registered nurse. On each side of that decade there were substantially fewer young nurses in the profession.

The BLS separately projected job needs resulting from expansion of demand and from retirements (and other reasons for leaving the profession). They are presented in the Table.

Table. BLS-Selected Employment Projections and Replacement Needs

  Change, 2012-2022 (in thousands)
Occupational Category Increased New Jobs Replacement Needs Total Openings
RNs 526.8 525.7 1052.6
Nurse anesthetists 8.8 6.8 15.6
Nurse midwives 1.7 1.2 2.9
Nurse practitioners 37.1 21.4 58.5
RNs and APRNs 574.4 555.1 1129.6
Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary 24.0 10.2 34.2

Source: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics[1]


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