Nursing: Hot Job, High Pay -- So Where Are the Takers?

The nursing population, as a whole, is aging. Recent statistics, Walker said, show that the average age of a registered professional nurse is 47.3 years old, and just 10 percent of nurses in the United States are under the age of 30.

Kathleen Dracup, the dean of the School of Nursing at the University of California at San Francisco, said the average age of nurses has been rising since the 1980s.

Nursing is a historically female profession, but the number of women opting to enter the field, she said, began dropping as they found a growing array of other career opportunities.

Still, according to some people in the profession, the shortage of nurses isn't for a lack of people who want to go into the field.

In recent years, Dracup said, media attention to the plight of the nursing profession, as well as an increased emphasis on values in the post 9/11 era, has helped raise interest in nursing.

The problem, experts say, is that there aren't enough open slots in nurse training programs to accommodate those interested in the profession.

In 2007, nursing schools turned away more than 40,000 qualified applicants, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

A lack of nursing faculty plays a major role in limiting the size of nurse training programs, Dracup said.

Salaries for nursing faculty, she said, haven't kept pace with salaries for nurses in general, and that's discouraged nurses from pursuing teaching careers. She said nurses with master's degrees earn, on average, $8,000 more in clinical practice -- $82,500 -- than they would if they were nursing school faculty members.

Good News for Nurse Training?

Nurse training programs receive less in the way of government subsidies than do medical programs. A 2007 study by the PricewaterhouseCoopers' Health Research Institute found that "nursing education programs often lose money for colleges, limiting colleges' willingness to expand their programs and raise faculty salaries."

But Dracup said there is some good news on the nurse training front: Some not-for-profit groups are tackling the issue, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation is offering scholarships for would-be nurse faculty members and is also providing money to subsidize their research.

Some prospective faculty members don't need new programs or incentives to get going.

Maja Djukic, 29, who has worked as a staff nurse for 10 years, said high stress on the job is part of what's prompted her to pursue a career in academia instead.

"You go to work and you try to take care of the patients, and you are just not able to do that the best way you know you can," the New York woman said.

The Dark Side of Nursing

Dean Caputo, the Michigan nurse who scrounged for supplies at his last hospital, once felt the same types of frustrations voiced by peers like Djukic.

Today, Caputo is happy working as a nurse manager at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. The hospital has been recognized for its nursing programs by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

But Caputo said he still hears horror stories from nurses who recently left other hospitals to join Beaumont.

The conditions that Caputo and other nurses faced explain why, experts say, hospitals often have a hard time retaining hard-to-get nursing talent.

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