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Updated: April 17, 2023 Editorial

Editorial: The workforce shortage is coming for us all

The problems with staffing shortages in the healthcare industry stretch back decades. Since at least the 1990s, the industry has been pushing for more people to become trained nurses, and salaries rose as demand outpaced supply, particularly as the large Baby Boomer generation started to need more health care. The industry is highly susceptible to burnout, as healthcare professionals are often thrust into fraught situations and deal with life-and-death scenarios.

Like other industries, the coronavirus pandemic turned a staffing problem into a staffing crisis. Demand for services spiked, burnout increased, professionals retired, and healthcare providers had to pull out all the stops to keep operating. As WBJ Staff Writer Isabel Tehan points out in her Bankrupting the system story, one very poignant problem caused by the healthcare staffing crisis is the unsustainable rise in the use of travel nurses. Unlike staff nurses, travel nurses only work for a limited time period and are used to fill in staffing gaps. They are also paid three times what a staff nurse makes.

Before COVID, travel nurses would be used when staff nurses went on vacation or if another temporary hole in staffing rose. However, since the pandemic began, travel nurses are a regular part of the staffing system, filling gaps that seemingly can never be closed. The largest healthcare provider in Central Massachusetts – UMass Memorial Health in Worcester – is employing 60% more travel nurses than before the pandemic and doesn’t anticipate nearing normal levels until at least 2024.

The travel-nurse problem is an extreme example but indicative of the larger problem plaguing not only health care, but industries across the Central Massachusetts economy. The staffing shortages from early in the pandemic – caused by early retirements, people re-evaluating their work lives, and balancing child care needs – have grown into a systemic issue. Even nationally as major tech firms, which are actually a very small part of the economy, lay off tens of thousands of workers, the unemployment rates in Central Massachusetts remain around 5%, and the largest portion of WBJ readers responding to an April 10 online poll said their companies still are looking to add positions. Companies raise wages to entice more workers, but problems like affordable housing and limited public transit contribute to the region’s inability to attract a robust, well-rounded workforce. Businesses need to start being more proactive on issues like affordable housing, child care, education, and transportation to stave off a workforce crisis.

Few employers or industries will find themselves in a situation like UMass Memorial, forced to overrely on temporary staffing that costs three times as much as traditional workers. Even though the workforce shortage will manifest itself differently for each industry, it’s better for companies to rein in the problem now and keep it under control, rather than suffer the unpredictability caused by a prolonged crisis.

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