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To Build the Workforce, We Need More Nurse Educators

By Barry Bottino and published by

The current need for nurse faculty has left nursing students, instructors, and schools stretched thin. So, now more than ever, it’s crucial to create and implement strategies to grow this vital part of the nursing profession.

When Susan Bindon, DNP, RN, NPD-BC, CNE, CNE-cl, FAAN, explained the need for nurse educators, her description was succinct.

“In a word — critical,” said Bindon, an associate professor and associate dean for faculty development at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. But that’s not the only word Bindon used to describe the current state of the national nursing education landscape.

“Ongoing. Pervasive. Persistent. Alarming. Looming,” she said.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) echoed that language. Its Survey on Vacant Faculty Positions for Academic Year 2022-2023 reported that 8.8% of the nation’s full-time nurse faculty positions are vacant — nearly a full point higher than the previous year (8%).

The survey also said that 2,166 full-time vacancies exist nationally, which averages to 2.4 vacancies per school. And nearly 62% of the 909 schools surveyed had vacant full-time positions.

“It definitely gets your attention,” Bindon said. “The nursing shortage has always gotten attention, but the faculty shortage much less so. People are realizing how directly connected they are.”

Full-time positions for nurse educators aren’t the only ones sitting vacant, however.

“This survey focuses solely on full-time faculty positions, and we know that many part-time faculty positions are also currently open,” said Deborah Trautman, PhD, RN, FAAN, President, and CEO of the AACN.

The impact is not only being felt for those in nursing education positions but also at hospitals and health systems across the country. Despite the concerning numbers, efforts are underway on many fronts to find and implement solutions.

“As dire as it is, it’s also an opportunity,” Bindon said.

Two shortages, one common problem

Deborah Trautman, RN

At a time when more growth is essential in the nursing workforce, the need for nurse educators has had an impact on nursing students in a variety of ways. The AACN said in its 2021–2022 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing report that 91,938 qualified applications to U.S. nursing schools were turned away in 2021.

The causes included insufficient numbers of nurse faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints. The majority of respondents to the AACN enrollment and graduations survey said that the lack of nurse educators was the top reason for not accepting qualified applicants into their nursing programs.

“We can’t produce enough nurses because we don’t have enough faculty,” Bindon said. “In my world, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, some of those folks we turn away are potential nurse educators.’”

Educator roles also include those who are orienting new graduates into clinical settings, according to Bindon.

“Fewer faculty mean maybe the (clinical) groups are bigger,” she said. “The trouble there is that some of those sites can’t really handle the groups being bigger, so we’ve had to be creative in engaging some of the clinical partners to serve as clinical faculty extenders.”

The connection between these two issues must be part of any future solutions, according to Trautman. “Efforts to alleviate the nursing shortage must focus on addressing the nurse faculty shortage as a priority,” she said.

Overcoming challenges

More than half of those surveyed by the AACN for its faculty vacancy report said faculty recruitment faces three major hurdles — noncompetitive salaries (66.7%), finding faculty with the right specialty mix (59.2%), and a limited pool of doctorally prepared faculty (51.4%). In addition to these hurdles, difficulties finding faculty willing or able to teach clinical courses (38.7%) was also a factor.

Susan Bindon, RN

“We have challenges,” Bindon said. “I’ve always said, ‘Great faculty attracts great students. Great students become great nurses. Great nurses provide great care to patients and communities.’ I hope to convey the influence that nurse educators can have, not just on current students.”

The inadequate number of nurse educators means larger workloads for current nurse educators. For some in nursing education careers, writing grants, doing research, attending conferences, and writing articles can take a back seat to other duties.

“It’s not just teaching,” Bindon said. “There’s advising, grading, and committees. Their own scholarship may suffer.”

Like bedside nurses, the extra workload for nurse faculty can raise the potential of burnout.

Another major challenge is the retirements among older nurse faculty, as noted in the study, Retirements and Succession of Nursing Faculty in 2016–2025 by researchers Di Fang of the AACN and Karen Kesten, DNP, APRN, CCNS, CNE, FAAN, of George Washington University. This study also estimated that one-third of nurse educators in 2015 would be retired by 2025.

“It makes me feel an urgency that’s been coming at us,” said Bindon. “And now it’s only three years away.” The COVID-19 pandemic also plays a role as a “compounding variable” among those in nursing education careers, and many others, when making retirement decisions.

Strategies for a brighter future

The need for nurse educators won’t be solved with one simple fix. Rather, a myriad of strategies are being implemented and discussed.

In October, the AACN hosted a Future of Faculty forum with academic nursing leaders from a variety of institutional types. Trautman said the event included “discussions about re-envisioning the faculty role” and future plans. A report on the discussions will be released by the AACN in 2023.

Bridging the need for nurse educators involves partnering with clinical agencies and hospitals to share graduate-prepared nurses with an interest in teaching, encouraging retired faculty to teach part time, and supplementing salaries to bolster recruitment and retention efforts, according to Trautman.

Fast-track programs, minors, certificate programs, and education tracks also are being offered to prepare students for nursing education careers.

The University of Maryland’s School of Nursing offers a 12-credit graduate teaching certificate program, while many other schools offer accelerated second-degree programs to provide opportunities for prospective nurses. In addition to this, programs such as paramedic-to-RN and bridge programs that help associate degree nurses achieve a baccalaureate degree give even more options.

“As nurses, one of our calling cards is that we’re creative, and we’re solution oriented,” said Bindon, who suggested that nursing schools should offer an opportunity to shadow those in nursing education. “A day in the life of an educator — that would be a fun way for those who maybe don’t understand the full faculty role to get a feel for it.”

Current nurse educators can also benefit and learn from those who taught them the past. By staying connected to their schools, either via an alumni association, volunteering as a guest lecturer, or as a member of an expert nursing panel, present nurse educators can gain experience and guidance from their former nurse instructors.

“They have talents and skills that current faculty might not have,” Bindon said.

Most specialty nursing associations also have an education committee. In addition, speaking to legislators about the value of nurse faculty can encourage an increase in funding and policy changes.

“Think back to your favorite nurse educators,” Bindon said. “People remember — even if it’s [from] 40 years ago — what a difference and impact they’ve made.”

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