Are there enough travel nursing jobs in this economy? This question is on every nurse’s mind that is thinking about becoming a traveler. There are lots of opinions on this and it seems like the general consensus is that travel nursing took a big hit in 2008 but is now bouncing back. The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) unfortunately does not report on travel nursing so there are no concrete numbers to look at. I decided to look at what they do report on and try to make an educated guess on those figures. I combed through the last ten years of available data, 2002-2011 and focused on three occupations: RNs and LPNs working at “general medical and surgical hospitals” and construction workers specializing in residential construction.
The BLS breaks nurses up into several categories based on the types of facilities they work in, like hospitals and nursing homes, to who they work for, like government and schools. I decided to focus on the category of “general medical and surgical hospitals” as this likely pertains to how most traveling nurses are used. I added residential construction workers to compare the healthcare industry with an industry that was probably hardest hit by the economy. The results are encouraging and will hopefully shed a little light on the future of nursing and by default, travel nursing. This is what I found.
The chart below shows estimated total number of persons employed in each category from 2002 through 2011. Estimates for the year 2012 are not yet available. When looking at the chart, the drastic difference in total RNs vs LPNs jumps out right away. In 2011, there were slightly more than 1.5 million RNs working in hospitals compared to about 136,000 LPNs. The construction workers totaled just under 370,000. I thought it was also interesting how steady the nursing jobs were compared to construction. Although RNs are increasing and LPNs are decreasing, neither saw a huge drop or increase in labor suggesting that the healthcare industry is much more stable and recession-proof.
The next chart shows the increase or decrease in percentages of each occupation. The baseline is 2002 so each year shows the cumulative percentage of increase or decrease of workers compared to how many workers there were in 2002. I think this chart again shows how much more stable the healthcare industry is compared to the volatile residential construction industry. It also shows that RNs have steadily increased at a fairly steady rate since 2002, averaging about 2% every year with a total of 18% by 2011. LPNs on the other hand have steadily decreased an average of about 4% every year and were down a total of 34% by 2011. Residential construction workers fared the worst with a total decrease of 43% by 2011. It’s amazing how sharp the nose-dive was for construction workers starting in 2007 and 2008, especially since you can see it outpacing RNs in growth the previous four years.
So, what does this mean for travelers? I believe as long as the economy continues to recover, although at a very slow pace, the outlook looks very good. One theory of the dramatic decrease in traveling jobs is that they were the first to get cut when the economy took a turn. Travelers are much more dispensable than permanent staff and a quick and easy way to cut costs, something every employer was trying to do during the recession. This downside of being a traveler is also a strength. As the economy recovers, travelers are a quick and easy way to increase staff. It also gives hospitals a chance to test the water and determine if increasing staff works and they can eventually begin hiring permanent staff.
I do want to give a few disclaimers. Statistics are very tricky and can be misleading. Any statistics professor worth his or her salt will drill the concept that “correlation does not imply causation”. In other words, be careful when drawing conclusions from the data I have presented because there are so many factors involved. For example, just because LPN jobs have decreased in hospitals over the past 10 years does not mean that LPNs will no longer be needed in the future. In fact, jobs for LPNs working in nursing homes have increased 16% during the same time period as the examples above, nearly matching the 18% increase of RNs in hospitals. LPNs will still be needed, just not so much in hospitals. I would also like to say that we have not had any problems with finding travel nurse positions. You may have to be willing to travel to places you may not have considered, but the jobs seem to be there. If you would like to share your experiences with the availability of travel nursing jobs, feel free to post them in the comments below or in our forum.