Gone are the days where baby boomers dominate the nursing profession.

According to a study published in Health Affairs, millennials – individuals born between 1985 and 2002 – are 186% more likely to be a registered nurse (RN) compared to a baby boomer. This suggests that millennials will dominate the nursing industry in the next decade.

The study led by David Auerbach, MS, PhD, an external adjunct faculty member Montana State University’s College of Nursing examined the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey for the period 1979 – 2000 and data from the bureau's American Community Survey for 2001 – 2015 to identify the current nursing workforce trend. They looked at data on more than 429,500 RNs.

The study finds that baby boomers were 65% less likely to become an RN compared to those born in the late 1980s. The data also showed the number of millennial RNs doubled from 440,000 in 2000 to a total of 834,000 in 2015.

Generational characteristics might explain difference in entry rates

When it comes to reasons behind the differing rates between the two generations, the study did not find any conclusive outcome. However, they suggested that factors such as economic uncertainty and earnings instability could be few of the reasons why millennials are opting to be RNs.

“Millennials seem to be going into it for perhaps a different set of reasons (than baby boomers)… it’s an area where you’re making a difference in people’s lives day to day. I think that is a motivator,” says Auerbach.

Despite the average millennial overall having entered the nursing workforce at nearly twice the rate as an average boomer, these rates seem to have finally reached a plateau.

As such, coupled with the increase in retirement of baby boomers, the nursing workforce will only grow 36% between 2015 and 2030 – a rate of 1.3% annual per capita growth. This suggests that the growth alone may not suffice. Auerbach however added that maintaining the plateau would be enough to avoid shortage of nurses in the future.

“Even with millennials' unprecedented rate of entry into nursing, the retirement of the baby boomers will dampen (but not erase) the workforce growth rates of the past decade," study authors wrote.

Providers need to pay attention to growth rate of workforce

Baby boomers were the largest segment of RN workforce from 1981 to 2012.
Baby boomers were the largest segment of RN workforce from 1981 to 2012.

The shortage of nurses – if it may occur – would depend on unpredictable factors like changes in technology.

To prevent the matter, the study proposes that employers consider generational characteristics to keep their own organisations stable, accounting for millennials’ “high propensity to switch jobs and organisations and their need for achievement and for a balance between work and life.”

The study also suggests that healthcare organisations might lose experienced RNs and experience a slower growing workforce when navigating the shift to value-based care.

“A more slowly growing workforce and the loss of an experienced cohort of RNs should be on the minds of provider and payer organisations as they transition to new care delivery and payment models in the next decade,” researchers wrote. The statement would resonate a few earlier findings about having millennial RNs.

Organisations need to revisit headhunting strategies

The future of millennial RNs is most likely to be dominated by patient satisfaction surveys, reducing readmissions, reporting on quality measures and coming to term with new financial and payment realities, forcing hospital executives to revisit headhunting strategies.

A report in 2008 by Kate Christmas, RN and Vice President of Health Care Division at Bernard Hodes stated that millennial RNs will require more structured entry programs, including post graduate residencies, on-the-job mentoring as well as guidance and frequent feedback and learning opportunities if health organisations are interested in keeping the generation in the profession line.

“Their attributes of optimism, finding fulfilling work, collaboration and respect for authority make them ideal candidates for nursing careers,” wrote Christmas. “Their affinity for technology, structure and positive feedback may be a detriment to them accepting certain nursing positions.”

Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Kansas is one of the employers that realised the shift sooner and positioned themselves as a sought-after workplace in the intensifying competition for primary care doctors.

In 2013, chief executive officer Gene Meyer launched an "emerging leaders" group for employees in their 20s and 30s to compensate for the baby boomers’ retirement. The hospital promoted vacancies to the 250 University of Kansas pre-med students who volunteer at his hospital every year and does it via Twitter and Facebook.

"We're probably being more liberal [with social media policies] than we should," says Meyer. "But we've been reluctant to ban any of that simply because this is a way of life for so many of the folks who work for us." MIMS

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