A surge in young people becoming registered nurses may ease the looming nursing shortage, new research suggests. The number of people aged 23 to 26 — primarily women — who became RNs increased by 62 percent from 2002 to 2009, approaching numbers not seen since the mid-1980s. Combined with the fact that RNs today tend to enter training at older ages than those a generation ago, these new entering cohorts are projected to become the largest group of nurses ever observed, according to researchers from the RAND Corp., Vanderbilt University and Dartmouth College.

A decade ago, researchers predicted that the United States could face a shortage of 400,000 RNs by 2020 because fewer young people were entering the profession. Between 1983 and 1998 the proportion of the RN workforce younger than 30 dropped from 30 percent to 12 percent, while the average age of working nurses increased from 37 to 42.

Examining data about RN employment from 1973 to 2009, researchers found that while the number of RNs aged 23 to 26 peaked at more than 190,000 in 1979, it fell to fewer than 110,000 by 1991 and remained low throughout the next decade.

Since 2002, however, the number of young RNs has grown at a rate not seen since the 1970s. The number of RNs aged 23 to 26 has climbed from 102,000 in 2002 to 165,000 by 2009.

If the number of people entering nursing continues to grow at today's levels, researchers say that by 2030 there will be enough RNs to meet the nation's projected needs. However, if that growth levels off, the workforce barely will keep pace with population growth, which likely would result in continued shortages.

Researchers say there are several reasons that interest in nursing has surged, including major initiatives launched to increase interest in the profession; training programs that expanded enrollment and accelerated training; and the economic downturn and a continued decline in manufacturing jobs.

For more information, go to www.rand.org.