N.J. Nursing Initiative addresses shortage of nurses, faculty for nursing programs

An innovative experiment in proactivity is starting to pay off.

A hybrid of philanthropy, business and government that coalesced in 2009, the New Jersey Nursing Initiative has supported 61 nurses in their quest for master’s and doctoral degrees with tuition and a $50,000 stipend.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation fashioned the scholarship program as a way of recruiting — and retaining — teachers desperately needed to educate the next generation of nurses.

To sweeten the deal, a 2010 law provides student loan forgiveness in exchange for working in New Jersey as a full-time nurse faculty member, which can pay substantially less than a traditional nursing job.

Dozens of the nurses have completed their advanced degrees and are ready to begin teaching throughout the state. Their success, however, is much more than a matter of personal fulfillment. Chances are it will have an impact on your well-being.

Like most of the country, New Jersey is in the throes of a severe shortage of nurses. Last year, that dearth was estimated at 17 percent. The state’s 114,000 actively licensed nurses won’t be enough to meet demands, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and New Jersey could be in need of 20,000 nurses by 2020.

What’s more, just 8 percent of New Jersey nurses are under 30. The average age of the state’s nurses is 51; for nurse faculty, it’s 55.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s over-65 population is expected to reach 1.8 million in the next seven years, substantially increasing health-care demands. And the number of patients dealing with chronic illnesses — asthma, diabetes and heart disease — will keep nurses busy.

There are plenty of young people interested in the burgeoning field with excellent job prospects, but a lack of teachers has kept them from training. Just a few years ago, for instance, there were 440 applicants for the 60 seats in The College of New Jersey’s nursing program.

The Nursing Initiative seems to have found a key to opening that pipeline with the influx of dozens of educators ready to train nursing students.

As Thomas Edison State College begins construction in the fall on a $17 million nursing school on West State Street, and TCNJ and Mercer County Community College continue their programs, choices for students abound.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the state’s Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Legislature are to be commended for proactive planning and a successful strategy for an invaluable investment in New Jersey’s health.