The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States brought on highly publicized shortages of things like toilet paper, facemasks and hand sanitizer, but eventually, supply levels caught up with the unprecedented demand, and those items can once again be found filling the shelves of stores across the country.
One shortage felt across America that continues to persist, however, is that of nurses. In fact, COVID-19 seems only to have exacerbated a nationwide issue officials for years had warned was looming, citing a variety of reasons.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE
- Changing demographics in the U.S. point to a need for more nurses to care for the country’s aging Baby Boomer population, including many with chronic diseases and comorbidities, such as diabetes and obesity.
- Like the patients they serve, a significant segment of the nursing workforce is also aging and nearing retirement.
- Amplified by the pandemic, insufficient staffing is raising the stress level of nurses and causing frustration and burnout, driving many to leave the profession.
- Without sufficient funding and faculty — many of whom are also aging — nursing schools across the country are struggling to expand capacity to meet the rising demand for program enrollment.
—Information from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing
Simply put, the country’s healthcare system could not function without nurses at all levels, who, at nearly 4 million strong, make up the largest percentage of workers in the health profession. They are critical to patient care in hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers and skilled nursing facilities, as well as in behavioral health settings, the home, schools, universities, prisons and more.
Despite the shortage of trained nurses, which multiple sources project will continue through at least 2030, interest in the profession has remained steady. In fact, across the country, nursing schools are struggling to meet the historically high demand for enrollment, in large part due to the lack of sufficient funds and faculty, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
But with its new Associate of Science in Nursing program, made possible in large part by an incredibly generous $1.5 million grant from the George W. Strickland Jr. Foundation, Ogeechee Technical College is committed to doing its part "to help bridge the gap and supply the community with high-quality registered nurses that are prepared to join the workforce," said Jackie Howard, MSN, RNC, WHNP, practical nursing program director and instructor at OTC.
For nearly 40 years, the college has trained students in the area of practical nursing, which prepares them to become licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, usually in about a year. In fact, this was the first program to be offered by OTC following its founding in 1986, and in the decades since, it has built a reputation for excellence. In early 2023, NurseJournal ranked the school's LPN program among the top five in the nation based on metrics including academic quality, affordability, reputation and program offerings.
"The clinical nursing program is a diploma-level program," Howard said. "It prepares the student for the national licensure NCLEX-PN, which is the licensure for practical nursing. The grads receive a PN diploma, and then they have the qualifications to go into entry-level PN job opportunities."
In collaboration with a larger team of providers, LPNs administer direct patient care, such as monitoring vital signs, collecting samples, changing bandages and ensuring patient comfort.
Now, for the first time, OTC is offering students the opportunity to further their education — and their careers — by taking the next step and becoming registered nurses. In January 2024, the college’s first cohort of 24 RNs-in-training will begin spring semester classes, ready to enter the workforce as early as summer 2025.
“The Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) is for a registered nurse, so it's a two-year associate degree program,” Howard said. “Students who receive an associate's degree in nursing are qualified to sit for the NCLEX-RN … (as) compared to the NCLEX-PN. Once they successfully complete that exam and get granted licensure from the Georgia Board of Nursing, they are employable as registered nurses, which offers increased pay levels (and) a wider variety of job opportunities, including those with leadership roles.”
Additionally, if these RNs wish to continue advancing their careers, “the ASN degree allows them to enter seamlessly into a bachelor's degree program,” Howard said. “From there, they can pursue a master’s or even a doctoral degree.”
As part of their training, ASN students will complete their clinical rotations in healthcare settings throughout the region, including in Bulloch, Screven and Evans counties, where they will receive hands-on instruction in caring for patients across all stages of life, “from neonate to geriatrics,” Howard said.
The duties of RNs are wider in scope than those of LPNs and include things like administering medications, performing diagnostic tests and operating medical equipment, as well as educating patients and their families about health conditions and often supervising other healthcare personnel. According to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for RNs will increase 6% in the decade between 2021 and 2031, adding around 200,000 new RNs to the workforce.
RN vs. LPN: WHAT’S
LICENSED PRACTICAL NURSE (LPN)
- LPNs complete a shorter training and education program, typically around one year, and are licensed to provide more direct patient care. Their duties include maintaining records, checking blood pressure and vital signs, and helping patients eat, dress and bathe.
REGISTERED NURSE (RN)
- RNs complete either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing, which requires two to four years of school, and have the authority to assess and administer treatments. They work with physicians to provide full patient care, from preliminary exams all the way through follow-up visits.
—Information from Nurse.org
With a detailed list of requirements and qualifications and just 24 spots available in its first cohort, OTC anticipates the admissions process for the new program to be fairly competitive. Over the past few months, Howard has hosted several ASN informational workshops for anyone interested in applying. Among those in attendance at the November workshop were couple Josh Richardson and Shelby Volkert, along with Volkert’s 4-year-old son, Aiden.
Richardson currently works as a local paramedic, and Volkert is an emergency room LPN, having earned her practical nursing diploma from OTC back in 2019. Both have applied to the ASN program at OTC and hope to begin as part of its first cohort in January while continuing to work full time in their current roles.
“It’s crazy to think that I graduated their (LPN) program nine months pregnant, and now my little one is 4,” Volkert said. “Over the last couple of years as an LPN, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a busy medical surgical floor, a regional emergency room, and now a rural ER. While all of these positions have been very different, they’ve led me to a larger, more confident skillset each time.”
Volkert says she loves the profession she’s chosen in nursing, and her decision to continue her education to further that career is driven by her desire for a better future, both for herself and her son.
“As a single mom, becoming an RN secures a better financial income and allows me to broaden my skills and opportunities in the area,” she said. “While I plan to stay in emergency medicine, I’d like the opportunity to secure better pay and even have an outlet for extra income, such as remote triaging positions.”
To Volkert, Ogeechee Technical College feels like “a home away from home,” and she is eager for the chance to once again train under its gifted nursing faculty.
“Mrs. Howard and the rest of the instructors truly care about you and want you to succeed,” she said. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of them in a clinical setting, and their skills and judgment are unmatched.”
The Associate of Science in Nursing program at OTC has been years in the making, with various stages of approval required at both the local and state levels. Now, following official approval by the Georgia Board of Nursing and with the self-perpetuating endowment from the George W. Strickland Jr. Foundation, which will provide $150,000 a year for 10 years to support the program’s staffing needs, the countdown has begun.
“This program is something that our community has needed for a long time, and I am so glad to be a part of it,” Howard said. “I cannot wait to start January!”