Investing in Nursing = A Better Care Economy

A group of nurses seated at a tableDuring National Nurses Week, May 6-12, the Department of Labor honors the skills, resilience, and care provided by nurses and other workers in the care economy. National Nurses Week provides an opportunity to call attention to the value of a well-trained, well-supported, sustainable care workforce.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that nurses make up the largest segment of U.S. healthcare professionals, with nearly 4.2 million registered nurses among them. Despite these numbers, the profession faces significant staffing challenges as the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average of 203,200 openings for registered nurses each year through 2031. To meet the continuing need for skilled workers in nursing and other in-demand careers, the department’s Employment and Training Administration supports the development of pathways that help workers develop essential career skills by aligning education and training programs with industry needs.

Career pathways represent a strategic approach to building employer-driven, regional talent pipelines by addressing employers’ skill needs and creating meaningful career pathways to quality jobs for diverse workers. Last year, then-Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh met with a group of nursing professionals during National Nurses Week to discuss their concerns, including long-term staffing patterns in the healthcare industry that have contributed to today’s challenges, and the need for adequate staffing, time off and mental health supports.

In recognition of the strong and growing need for nursing professionals, the department is investing nearly $80 million through a competitive funding opportunity to support the worker pipeline needed through two key strategies:

  1. supporting the training and upskilling of students and former nursing professionals to become nursing faculty and instructors, and
  2. supporting direct training and career pathway opportunities of frontline healthcare professionals and paraprofessionals in skilled nursing occupations.

The first strategy will help to bolster the pool of qualified nursing instructors and educators who will be critical to training the next generation of nurses. In 2019, U.S. nursing schools turn away over 80,000 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs, with insufficient faculty cited as the top issue. The second strategy will help to more rapidly train the necessary nursing workforce for the near-term, while expanding the pipeline and creating more equitable opportunities for advancement into quality nursing jobs.

Nurses are important care professionals, but they are not alone. The care economy incorporates everyone from healthcare professionals such as nurses, certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, mental health professionals, child care workers and direct care workers who support older adults, individuals with disabilities, and others with long-term care assistance needs. Many of the same workforce challenges exist in these other areas of care. There are also unique challenges in the child care and direct care workforce, both in terms of the needs of workers and the needs of those who must rely on care workers and may not be able to afford these services. 

Recently, the Biden-Harris Administration released Executive Order 14095, Increasing Access to High-Quality Care and Supporting Caregivers. While not a substitute for the significant care-related investments President Biden has called on Congress to make, the Order takes steps to create viable pathways to affordable, high-quality care, as well as to ensure that caregivers from the broad spectrum of care professions have the support they need to continue in their profession, through efforts to ensure access to quality training, provision of supportive services, and improved retention of staff. 

National Nurses Week is a reminder that now is the time to invest in a better care economy. Building a better care economy means supporting good jobs and protections for workers and ensuring that workers—particularly those from historically marginalized communities—have the supports needed to obtain these quality jobs. We need a strong care economy to have a strong and healthy workforce.

Brent Parton is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training in the U.S. Department of Labor.