Shortage of California Nurses Projected to Last Until 2026

California is poised to face a significant shortfall of registered nurses over the course of the next five years, according to 2 surveys.

As the pandemic continues on, there are many concerns about the nursing workforce that have surfaced. In order to dig deeper into some of the most prominent concerns, namely staffing, the UCSF Health Workforce Research Center on Long-Term Care conducted two surveys in California to assess the current and future supply and demand of registered nurses (RNs). Their findings were published in a recent report.

According to the authors, California is poised to face a significant shortfall of RNs over the course of the next five years. This is primarily due to long-term trends that have worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Current estimates place the shortage at around 40,567 full-time equivalent RNs, a 13.6% gap, anticipated to continue until 2026, according to a preliminary analysis from the 2020 Survey of California Registered Nurses and final data from the 2019-20 Annual RN Schools Survey.

California has more than 350,000 RNs employed in hospitals, clinics and other facilities, in addition to more than 450,000 licensed nurses. In fact, California nurses make up approximately 12% of all nurses employed nationwide. Among employed RNs in California, it is estimated that 30% are over the age of 55 years.

“The pandemic is accelerating a broad trend that has been building for some time. To address this, employers need to retain older RNs, while developing career paths for new graduates," said Joanne Spetz, PhD, co-author of the report and director of the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, in a press release. "They also need to rapidly develop and implement strategies to mitigate the potential harm of nurse shortages over the next five years."

Underscoring Spetz’ recommendations are further findings from the study: Many older RNs in California have left the field and a large number plan on retiring or quitting within the next two years, while unemployment among younger RNs has increased. Specifically, in 2020, 26% of RNs between the ages of 55 and 64 reported that they plan to leave the field in the next two years, a significant increase from 12% reporting the same in 2018.

Concurrently, employers have been hesitant to hire less experienced RNs presumably because of the challenge in onboarding them amidst a pandemic. Despite this, there is record-breaking interest in the nursing profession. According to Spetz, RN education enrollments are projected to surpass pre-pandemic levels during the 2022-23 academic year.

She summarized the challenge ahead as this: “Can you address older RNs’ burnout and keep them in the workplace part-time to help onboard the new grads?”