In August, Texas faced a worst-case scenario: rural and urban hospitals were hitting capacity across the state.  

From Aug. 13 to Aug. 19, at least 89 Texas hospitals had no available beds in their intensive care units. The following week, that number jumped to 100 hospitals. The problem was not a lack of physical beds — many had dozens of rooms sitting empty — but instead, a lack of staff, specifically nurses. A hospital cannot fill a bed if no one can attend to it.

The demand for nurses will continue to rise for the next decade; however, such demand will be unevenly distributed across the country. At present, there are 23,000 more unfilled jobs in Texas for registered nurses than nurses who are seeking to fill them. The most urgent need is for bedside nurses. The need will only grow as Texas’ demand for nurses is expected to increase by nearly 50% by 2030. 

In order to meet this demand, nursing programs must understand the needs of potential students and look beyond the traditional pipelines to recruit people at all stages of their education and career.

Texas’ nursing shortage is nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem with its consistent, higher volume of inpatients and soaring demand for intensive care beyond anything our community hospitals have ever experienced before.

For many, the lingering pandemic has left them feeling hopeless and a loss of agency, especially for those laid off early in the pandemic who have yet to regain employment. As society reflects on the lessons learned from the past 19 months, one opportunity becomes increasingly apparent: those wishing to help should consider a career in health care.

Educational institutions play a unique role in crisis preparedness. We are responsible for addressing workforce issues, adapting to changing landscapes, and evolving with our student populations to encourage more people to pursue fields that need workers. It’s not just about providing a valuable service but empowering learners to pursue competitive and fulfilling careers. Nursing is just that. Our health should be paramount, so we must work collectively to address this issue.

Yet, it’s not enough to simply encourage more high school seniors to consider a degree in nursing. A robust nursing workforce requires a pipeline of aspiring nurses beyond the traditional pipelines of 18-year-old students entering college. Our nursing schools need to meet students where they currently are in life.

The pandemic highlighted the racial and economic disparities in our health care system. It also showed the need for a more diverse health care field. To restore trust in our medical system, we must have health care workers who reflect our patients.

That means we need nurses who have changed careers, left college and decided to return, who are single parents or immigrants. We need diversity.  While diversifying our nursing population is not a panacea to the woes of our health care system, we have an opportunity to ensure patients receive care from individuals with life experiences that match their own.

Everyone who wants to make a difference should have an opportunity to learn. As educational institutions, we must ensure that our programs are accessible and affordable. We must also encourage and support individuals from diverse backgrounds.

At present, more than 75% of nurses are white, while less than 8% are Hispanic. With health care professionals in high demand, educational institutions have an opportunity to recruit and provide scholarships to a new generation of nurses that more accurately reflects the demographics of our population.

As we continue to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more health care workers will be needed. Those feeling called to help out and who would like to work to prevent future crises should consider a career in nursing.

Linda Battles

Linda Battles is the chancellor of WGU Texas. The online, nonprofit university is Texas’ second-largest nursing school. WGU's College of Health Professions received a 2021 Center Excellence designation...