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Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto, License: N/A, Created: 2019:01:26 15:32:30

by Phil Yacuboski

Pennsylvania could be at a crisis when it comes to nurses. Many in the state’s health care industry are worried that if staffing levels remain where they are, health care facilities will not have enough nurses to meet the demand, especially considering the state’s aging population.

“We have pockets of shortages,” said Betsy Snook, CEO of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association. “We don’t have shortages in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh area, but in the more rural areas is where we have a problem.”

Snook said by analyzing projections through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is one of the top occupations for job growth in the future.

“This may be one of the bigger shortages that we face,” said Snook.

The latest census numbers show the Keystone State’s elder population is growing 20 times faster than the rest of the population in the state. In 2025, one in five Pennsylvanians will be age 65 or older, according to government projections. In Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming, Wayne, Pike, Susquehanna, Bradford, Tioga, Carbon and Schuylkill counties, between 30 and 35 percent of the population is older than age 65.

“We’re going to have to work hard at this,” said Snook. “We’re going to need one-million nurses. That’s huge.”

Snook said the nursing curriculum is tough and demanding – requiring strong skills in the sciences and math. She said another problem will be the faculty to teach new nurses coming into the profession, as half of the teaching staff is over the age of 50. Job stress and other factors also have to be addressed to keep people in the profession once they begin their careers.

“We’ve been warning about this for some time,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. “If we look at the next five years, statewide, we can expect more than 9,500 registered nurse positions, more than 3,200 licensed practical nurse positions and more than 10,000 certified nursing aide positions to be available each year. And there will not be enough qualified people to fill those positions.”

Shamberg said it’s a combination of not having enough qualified people to fill the positions as well as an aging population.

Pennsylvania is the fifth largest state with residents aged 65 in the nation behind California, Texas, Florida and New York, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

“We’re an old state,” Shamberg said, “and we are getting older. And to compound the problem in five years, the baby boomers are going to age into the demographic that is in most need of long-term care services.”

Shamberg said his group is working with local Chambers of Commerce and other nonprofits to get more people into the profession.

“But we really have to look outside of the box,” he said. “It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job. It’s not for everybody. It’s really for a special set of people.”

“We don’t have a big enough geriatric-prepared workforce and there likely won’t be enough nursing home beds because there’s about a 91 percent occupancy at nursing homes throughout the state,” said Brenda Hage, assistant dean of nursing and chief nursing administrator, Misericordia University. “The aging population is living longer too.”

Hage said the average salary for a nurse with a bachelor’s degree is $71,000.

“A lot of it has to do with a positive image of nursing,” she said. “We are there when people come into the world and when they leave it, so I think people have a good view of nursing overall, and I think there are a lot of opportunities and we have to get that message out.”

She said to attract higher level nurses who are looking to expand their education, Misericordia University is opening a satellite campus in Pittsburgh this fall. It’s a combination of online and face-to-face communication.

Snook said to combat the shortages, companies will have to look at helping pay back student loans or provide scholarships to help to their staff members who choose to return to school to earn higher degrees.