Burned out nurse sitting at table with laptop with multiple doctors around her requesting things
HealthFebruary 25, 2021

Nursing faculty shortage in the U.S.: Has a pandemic compounded an existing problem?

By: Lindsay Grainger, MSN, MPH, RN
It is no secret that the United States is facing an ever-growing nursing shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects a need for 1.1 million new RNs by 2022 to address the high number of upcoming nurse retirements and growing healthcare needs (American Nurses Association).

With factors such as an aging population, an aging workforce, population growth and nurse burnout combined, especially during a global pandemic, the nursing shortage today is looking more concerning than ever. While nurses will have their pick of employment opportunities for the foreseeable future, patient access to quality nursing care will simultaneously decline due to reduced access to qualified nursing staff.

A nursing shortage affects communities and individuals acutely. Haddad, Annamaraju, and Toney-Butler (2020) report that, “Nursing shortages lead to errors, higher morbidity and mortality rates.” Nurses working in facilities that are not adequately staffed also experience burnout, dissatisfaction and attrition at much higher rates—further exacerbating the shortage.

Qualified nursing faculty is essential

One major contributing factor to the nursing shortage is the lack of qualified nursing faculty members. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing, AACN, report 2019-2020 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing states that “U.S. nursing schools turned away 80,407 qualified applications from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2019 due to an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints.” When surveyed, a majority of universities listed a lack of qualified faculty as a key reason for the inability to accept all qualified nursing applicants (AACN, 2020). We are losing qualified talent at a time when the American healthcare system needs the clinical skills, leadership, and compassion that nurses provide more than ever.

Serving on a nursing faculty search committee at a regional university, I have witnessed the struggle to hire new nursing faculty. Beyond the barrier to entry of the time and expense of earning a graduate degree, nursing faculty members are frequently expected to have recent and relevant teaching, clinical, and research experience. These high demands mean that faculty applicant pools often remain small. While the RN certification represents a broad scope of nursing knowledge, state boards of nursing require certain levels of clinical experience to teach different clinical nursing specialties (ie: pediatrics, women’s health, mental health, etc.). This means that sometimes, schools of nursing are unable to match faculty candidates with available positions. Additionally, nurse faculty salaries can detract qualified candidates. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners lists an average nurse practitioner salary (considering all settings and specialties) at $110,000 (AACN, 2020). Meanwhile, the average salary for a masters-prepared assistant professor of nursing was $79,444. This approximately $30,000 difference, or 28% “pay cut,” makes nursing education a less attractive nursing specialty.

The issue of nursing faculty shortages predates the Covid-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has added new weight to this reality. For example, the pandemic has forced much of nursing education to an online, virtual format. Luckett (2020) reports that at the start of the pandemic, nearly 70% of nursing faculty had not previously taught online. An overnight switch to virtual learning has not been seamless or easy on students or faculty. Especially stressful aspects of this new learning model for faculty include providing and virtually proctoring student testing, providing adequate clinical experiences for students, and feeling confident in the ability to adequately prepare students for the transition into the professional nursing practice (Luckett, 2020). The risk of burnout in these prolonged conditions is high—especially for faculty members who have young children or who are caretakers in the home.

Six standards for a healthy nursing workplace

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses has established six standards to ensure a healthy work environment. These standards are typically applied to a clinical setting to improve patient and nurse outcomes, but they are applicable to the academic setting as well. These standards are especially today due to work pressures brought on by the pandemic. They include:

  • Skilled communication – Be as proficient in communication skills as you are in clinical skills.
  • True collaboration – Be relentless in pursuing and fostering true collaboration.
  • Effective decision making – Be committed partners in making policy, directing, and evaluating clinical care, and leading organizational operations.
  • Appropriate staffing – Staffing must ensure the effective match between patient and nurse needs.
  • Meaningful recognition – Be recognized and recognize others for the value each brings to the work organization.
  • Authentic leadership – Fully embrace the imperative of a healthy work environment, authentically live it and engage others in its achievement.

For those of us faculty members looking to preserve healthy work environments, especially in these challenging times, embracing the above standards is a wise move. Practically speaking, collaboration might include co-teaching courses, having more tech-savvy faculty members paired with less tech-savvy ones in order to improve efficiency. Skilled communication might include correspondence that is more frequent than normal, between leadership and faculty members and faculty members and students. With the absence of face-to-face instruction and meetings, strategic and effective communication is key. Decision-making should be clear, at the leadership level and at the individual faculty member level. We need to realize the limits of our time and of our energy. Saying “no” to extra commitments during this time of prolonged stress and uncertainty is often necessary. Appropriate staffing is an ongoing concern in bedside nursing and in nursing academics. Nursing faculty need to contribute to environments where new faculty members want to teach, knowing that their leaders are also committed to recruitment and retention. Meaningful recognition goes hand-in-hand with employee satisfaction. Nursing faculty members need to know when they are performing well. Finally, authentic leadership means that nurses working in academia at all levels need to recognize and commit to creating a healthy work environment. Maintaining these standards will be supportive to existing nursing faculty and attractive to potential nursing faculty members.

While we cannot rewrite 2020, we have the blank canvas of a new year. With vaccines being widely distributed and administered, new hope is on the horizon. The resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity of nurses will remain paramount as we seek to end a pandemic and strategize ways to prepare and grow the nursing workforce.

Lindsay Grainger, MSN, MPH, RN
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
  1. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2020, September). Nursing faculty shortage. https://www.aacnnursing.org/news-information/fact-sheets/nursing-faculty-shortage.
  2. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Healthy work environments. https://www.aacn.org/nursing-excellence/healthy-work-environments.
  3. American Nurses Association. Workforce. https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/workforce/#:~:text=With%20more%20than%20500%2C000%20seasoned,to%20avoid%20a%20nursing%20shortage.
  4. Haddad, L.M., Annamaraju, P, & Toney-Butler, T. J. (2020, January). Nursing shortage. StatPearls. https://www.statpearls.com.
  5. Luckett, T. Y. (2020). Preventing nursing faculty burnout amidst a crisis. ABNF Journal, 95-96.
  6. Sidneyherald.com. https://www.sidneyherald.com/news/coronavirus/think-like-a-nurse-msu-uses-remote-learning-to-teach-students/article_0071be0c-88ae-11ea-8fd1-7f50a63078eb.html.
  7. Nurseslabs.com. https://nurseslabs.com/nurse-salary/.
  8. WP.Nurse.com. https://www.nurse.com/blog/2019/09/05/joint-commission-tackles-nurse-burnout-solutions/.
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