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Retaining Healthcare Professionals with Education Benefits

Retaining Healthcare Professionals with Education Benefits

By: Dona Dezube

HR professionals recently caught a break in their efforts to retain health care professionals as the economic downturn drove hundreds of thousands of RNs back to work, while new nursing graduates  entered the workforce. Yet those same HR professionals could soon find themselves scrambling to find qualified nurses as the economy recovers.

This time around, the nursing shortage could be especially acute for hospitals seeking magnet status and improved patient safety. These requirements will drive the need for more baccalaureate-degreed registered nurses (BSNs).

Retaining Health Care Professionals
This comes at a time of rising demand for RNs overall as Baby Boomers age and healthcare reform expands coverage to millions Americans.

Those changes are happening in a hiring market where the demand for bachelors of science nurses already outstrips supply. Monster’s Healthcare Job Conditions Report 2011 shows 52% of nurse employers ask for a BSN in their registered nurse job description, while only 35% of job candidates possess that credential; 42% of recruiters surveyed say they plan to increase RN hiring.

Grow-Your-Own BSNs
Hiring your way out of a BSN shortage may not be an option; only a third of new nurses are BSNs; capacity for increased school enrollment is limited due to shortages in clinical sites and faculty.

HR professionals considering “grow-your-own” BSN strategies have a limited window in which to get started. “There is emerging data that a massive exodus of employees will start in three years,” says Liana Orsolini-Hain, PHD, RN, a nursing instructor at City College of San Francisco, and a member of the Future of Nursing Committee at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Bethesda, Md.

In her study, Mixed Messages: Hospital Practices that Serve as Disincentives for Associate Degree-prepared Nurses to Return to School, Orsolini-Hain uncovered how workplace policies and company culture can influence RNs’ decisions to return to school.

Her recipe for growing-your-own BSNs? Assess current employee attitudes, revamp company culture, develop expanded career pathways and offer financial support and learning access for BSN-seeking employees.

Assessing Current Attitudes
Every healthcare organization has unique talent development challenges that must be addressed in order to increase BSNs.  To do so, Orsolini-Hain recommends organizing focus groups to identify the impact of work environment and any personal and workplace-related issues that hinder your AD-educated nurses from returning to school.

Be sure to include the HR department in your review and pay close attention to your healthcare recruiting and hiring processes. For example, if your job postings say “BSN preferred” or “Master’s preferred” and your reference-checking methods focus only on ADNs, candidates might assume that your company doesn’t value BSNs and higher degrees. 

Tapping your data analytics will also help differentiate those benefits programs that can effectively create and retain BSNs, says Michael Bleich, PhD, dean of the School of Nursing at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, and an IOM Future of Nursing committee member.

For example, Bleich says that you may find new nursing hires work best to complete a degree within a given time period, while mid-career nurses will be motivated by more autonomous career paths that link degrees to specific jobs.

Encouraging Learning at Work 
University partners that are willing to designate nursing school seats for your employees are another way to cultivate BSNs.  You can help enrolled employees by forming at-work study groups. “It will keep your RNs in the program and give them camaraderie,” Orsolini-Hain says. If possible, match students with mentors who have already completed their degrees.

Physical changes in the workplace can also help support your BSN students. Is there space for on-site classrooms with video-streaming for virtual seminars? If your workplace is in a rural location, can you add computer stations for online classes that eliminate a long commute to school?

Work life balance issues are also big for RNs. If budgets allow, consider offering a once-a-week sabbatical or stipends that support time-off while in school. If budgets are tight, consider providing flexible hours and time off during finals.

Rewarding your BSNs
Can your nurses reach the highest rung on the clinical ladder without a degree? Do you only require a degree if they’re promoted to management? If so, your workplace culture will continue to trump efforts to build a BSN base.

Money can be a powerful motivator. According to a study in Nursing Economics, a net benefit of more than 6.8% earnings will quadruple educational enrollment of AD-prepared nurses; they’re three times as likely to pursue advanced education if the net benefit ranges from 3% to 6.8% and twice as likely if the benefit is less than 3%.

Up-front tuition costs can be a barrier for single-parent (single paycheck) employees, even when reimbursed by the employer. A tuition reimbursement policy that helps employees pay for schooling at the beginning of the semester removes that hurdle, says Orsolini-Hain.

Finally, posting a calculator widget on your company website demonstrates the value of increased pay over time with an advanced degree.

Recognize Achievement
Programs that support nurses who return to school don’t have to be expensive. Including degrees and certifications on employee name tags allows the staff to better assess differences in performance between ADNs and BSNs. You can also give recognition to graduates with lunches, parties or by posting an honor roll.

Nurses Want to Go Back School
ADNs want to return to school -- 80 percent of the RNs Orsolini-Hain surveyed said they wished to obtain a BSN or higher degree. By working to improve your company culture, career opportunities and financial aid, HR professionals can help RNs fulfill that goal.