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Travel Nurses Provide an Effective Staffing Solution

Posted by: Jessica Barrett

Hospitals and health systems have found themselves turning to less traditional methods to fill nursing roles in this tight labor market. The improvement of the national economy, a rise in median age among the older population, and more people seeking medical care due to the Affordable Care Act, have all significantly increased the demand for nurses. Conversely, the ACA may limit nursing salaries, which could discourage people wanting to pursue a nursing career.  Additionally, baby boomers make up 40% of the healthcare workforce, and their impending retirement means a significant exit of current nurses.

Because of the already realized shortage, existing nurses are carrying a heavy workload, consistently putting in overtime hours, and experiencing high levels of burnout, causing them to seek other employment. Filling permanent nursing positions is taking longer due to the scarcity of qualified talent. As a result, the healthcare industry is turning to travel nurses to fill the staffing gap.  

Travel nurses typically sign on to work with an agency, and in many cases, several agencies, who assign them to work at a specific location where there is a high demand for nurses. The average travel nursing assignments range from 13 to 26 weeks. Once an assignment is over, the agency will place the travel nurse in a new assignment in another location. Because the demand for travel nurses is so high, nurses are able to choose among several jobs and a wide variety of locations they’d like to work in.

Not Enough Permanent Nurses to Meet Demand

The demand for permanently placed nurses is high and is continuing to rise. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, forecasts suggest the shortage of Registered Nurses will worsen over the next two decades.

The same is true for travel nurses as well. In the past, travel nurses were relied upon more seasonally, such as in areas like Arizona and Florida when the population increases during the winter months, or after a natural disaster when more nurses would be needed for a short duration. Now that travel nurses are being relied upon more consistently to cover the gaps in staffing, the industry is realizing the same nursing shortage among travel nurses as well.

A Unique Kind of Recruiting

The pace of filling temporary positions coupled with the variety of locations and a fair amount of uncertainty make the recruitment and retention of travel nurses unique. An important thing to keep in mind when attracting travel nursing candidates is that travel nursing provides the freedom to choose where and how much a nurse will work. This is an ideal opportunity for someone who thrives on constant change and not staying in the same place for too long. There are also those individuals who prefer not to become too involved in the culture of an organization, and therefore would rather stay for a short duration and move on before becoming too entrenched.

In addition to the freedom and flexibility travel nurses enjoy, their accommodations are typically provided or they receive a housing allowance. Eliminating housing expenses gives a travel nurse more room in their budget to enjoy a comfortable standard of living and put their finances toward other priorities. While these benefits are attractive, some travel nurses cite learning new processes as one of their reasons for taking these positions.

When surveyed, the top two reasons travel nurses chose to sign on with a traveling nurse agency were pay and location. While compensation is something that most recruiters are familiar with selling, location, especially multiple locations, is not. However, it is something to pay close attention to. The majority of travel nurses are looking for adventure and are specific about which locations they are interested in going to. This provides recruiters the opportunity to really sell candidates not only on the opportunities they will have but on the locations they could travel to as well.

Training and Strong Communication: Keys to Retaining Travel Nurses

Most travel nurses are expected to have at least one year of nursing experience in addition to passing the required NC-LEX (National Council Licensure Exam). Travel nurses are typically already highly trained individuals, however, working as a travel nurse offers additional training in specialty care areas. Pairing a less experienced nurse with a veteran nurse in acute or specialty care is part of the retention plan for many healthcare facilities, as nurses are less likely to move on when they are gaining the experience they are looking for in the facility they are already with.  

One of the largest issues with retaining a travel nurse through the duration of their assignment is the lack of clear expectations before it begins. Many nurses will show up to begin their new job only to find out that the work is not what had been agreed upon, often leading to the nurse leaving the assignment early. This ends up hurting their chances of receiving a strong recommendation since a travel nurse typically needs 5-7 good references in their file. The expectations of the position should be as clearly outlined as possible between the provider and the recruiter before a travel nurse is placed. By being honest, easy to work with, and maintaining excellent communication, one can help make sure they aren’t snatched up by another agency.   

Travel nurses will continue to be utilized as a critical solution to managing staffing gaps in nursing positions. What had once been an option for short-term staffing solutions has now proven to be a positive, effective way for healthcare providers to maintain continuity of care.

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