The nation is experiencing a significant nursing shortage, but so far Colorado has dodged the bullet, aided by strong nursing education programs and a steady stream of nurses interested in working here.
"We (in Northern Colorado) haven't experienced a nursing shortage, per se," said Bonnie Clipper, chief nursing officer at Medical Center of the Rockies, "but we certainly need to ensure growing the pipeline and supplement the workforce."
One theory behind the non-shortage is the economy.
"One of the consequences of the recession is nurses (near) retirement have stayed on the job," said Faye Hummel, professor of nursing and interim co-director of the nursing program at the University of Northern Colorado. "Based on that, the aging nursing workforce has maintained employment, which hasn't opened up the jobs we thought it would."
Colorado employs 50,000 nurses. Filling one in four health-care positions, nursing is the largest health-care occupation, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics' employment projections released in February 2012, the registered nursing workforce will be the top occupation through 2020, with the number of employed nurses growing from 2.74 million in 2010 to 3.45 million in 2020, an increase of 712,000 or 26 percent. The projections indicate a need for 495,500 replacements in the nursing workforce, bringing the total number of job openings for nurses because of growth and replacements to 1.2 million by 2020.
"It's interesting because what we're doing is responding to what we think is going to be a nursing shortage," Hummel said. "But what we're seeing is that it's taking longer for students to find nursing jobs along the Front Range as places want to hire nurses with more experience. It's a paradox. With the predicted shortage by 2020, the supply and demand is going to change."
According to the Colorado Labor Market Information Gateway, nursing is the No. 1 occupation to be filled based on job advertisements. Although the job openings are plentiful, they are also being filled quickly.
Clipper noted that Medical Center of the Rockies has approximately 30 job openings in the nursing field, but predicts those will be filled quickly. It employs 370 nurses.
"We have no problem filling positions," she said. "We always have more than enough qualified applicants and we tend to have really good retention from those who do get hired."
Many attribute the strong applicant pool to the rigorous nursing programs Colorado offers. The state has 35 schools of nursing, with two in Northern Colorado. Front Range Community College in Fort Collins and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley have nursing programs that hit capacity every year, and many students are turned away.
Front Range has an enrollment of 170 nursing students in its two-year program and 97 percent of its graduates pass the state licensing exam, according to Marty Bachman, chair of FRCC's nursing department.
The situation at UNC is similar. "Every year we admit 108 undergraduate students to our five-semester program," Hummel said. "We have a very high retention and success rate for students to graduate – we're nearly at 100 percent graduation every year. The application process is difficult because we get at least two qualified applicants for every person we admit, meaning for every student we admit, we will turn one away. And they're all qualified."
Nursing schools in the United States turned away 75,587 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2011, the most recent data available, because of an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors and budget constraints, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Almost two-thirds of the nursing schools responding to the survey pointed to faculty shortages as a reason for not accepting all qualified applicants into their programs.
Hummel said Colorado faces the same challenge as its nursing faculty ages and more retire.
"It's an interesting dilemma for us in nursing education," she said. "Not only are we seeing an increasing aging nursing workforce, we are also seeing an aging nursing faculty workforce."
Colorado has 950 nursing faculty members. Fifty-three percent of the state's full-time faculty is aged 55 or older and retiring at a rate of 45 individuals per year, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence. There is a concern that not enough nursing graduates are going into academia, severely limiting the backfill of faculty. According to the report, it takes one full-time-equivalent faculty member to graduate six nurses. If the nursing faculty does not replace those looking who retire, the ability to graduate nurses could shrink, which also could cause a nursing shortage.
Although Colorado has avoided the national nursing shortage, it potentially could fall victim based on an aging society, retiring nursing professionals, nursing school class sizes and health care-changes.
"The health-care sector is outpacing all other jobs," Hummel said. "Even though we know it's a growth industry, we're sort of in this time warp, so to speak, in which we're waiting for all these factors to change and break loose. It's all just a matter of time."
In fact, Front Range Community College expects to increase its nursing program's capacity by 25 percent between 2016 and 2017 as nurses continue to age and boomers require more care, said FRCC's Bachman.
"Maybe we're not feeling at this moment, but right here in Northern Colorado the shortage is a concern," she said.