Nursing Strike Highlights Need for a New Approach to Healthcare Hiring

By Myra Norton

Jan 13, 2023

Despite indicators that the healthcare job market is starting to rebound from the pandemic-induced nightmare of the past few years, it’s clear that the industry still has a steep hill to climb to return to normalcy. Most recently, 7,000 nurses from four New York City hospitals went on strike after talks with management broke down, representing the largest nursing strike in the largest American city in decades. 

Unlike many work stoppages, the New York nurse’s strike wasn’t just about money. As veteran nurse Lorena Vivas said,  “We are not out here for wages, we are out here because we want patient safety.” Due to understaffing, the average patient-to-nurse ratio has grown untenable, with ER nurses forced to care for up to 18 patients at a time as more spill out into hallways and overflowing waiting rooms. Even with pay bumps, bonuses, and added benefits, too many frontline medical workers are unable to properly care for their patients, and many of them have simply had enough.  

It’s important to note that we’re talking about passionate, dedicated healthcare professionals who withstood the horrors of the darkest days of the pandemic. These are people who care deeply about their jobs and prioritize the well-being of patients above all else. Drastic actions like work stoppages come only as a last resort, and it’s time to pay close attention to the (red, flashing) warning signs before it’s too late. Hospital executives care deeply about patients as well, of course, and have faced their own unique set of challenges navigating through the chaos of the past few years.  It’s critical that all parties come together to address factors such as working conditions and hospital policies that have led to the current crisis, and there are a number of steps hospitals can start taking today to improve the situation for everyone.

Prioritize Hiring High-Quality Support Staff

Trained, qualified nurses remain in perilously short supply, and even if one assumes that HR teams and recruiters are doing everything they can to fill open nursing positions, additional hiring levers can be pulled to alleviate the stress on frontline staff. A wide variety of support staff positions are critical to everyday medical operations and nurse morale, and those roles are typically easier to fill due to lighter certification and educational requirements. High turnover in support positions can make nurse’s jobs exponentially harder, adding to their already overwhelming workload by having to pick up the slack or help train a revolving door of new employees hired to support them.

Employers can reduce the threat of turnover among support roles and increase overall staff quality by focusing on retention early in the hiring process. Too often, hiring managers and recruiters consider only resume-centric qualifications when filling support staff roles–education, previous work experience, skills, etc. While these time-worn factors can be important, recent advancements in AI and data science enable employers to reliably predict which candidates are likely to be retained in specific roles by drawing on thousands of data points unbeknownst to any hiring manager. By putting the same care and time into hiring key support positions that goes into hiring frontline staff and executives, hospitals can decrease the load on overworked nurses and ultimately offer higher-quality care to patients.

Invest in Training and Workforce Development

The nursing crisis did not spring up overnight, and it won’t be solved quickly either. It’s important for healthcare executives and HR teams to start building the workforce of tomorrow in order to prevent future crises of this magnitude. That means investing in developing the next generation of frontline workers while continuing to focus on filling existing gaps. 

Employers need to nurture, train, and support their existing staff with an eye toward widening the funnel of qualified nurses in the years to come. Providing pathways for support positions and entry-level employees to move to frontline roles not only offers a bulwark against future shortages, it underscores the organization’s commitment to employees and boosts staff stability, morale, and even retention. Anything that suggests a light at the end of the tunnel for harried nurses while alleviating future staffing challenges is a win for everyone.

Proactively Engage Nontraditional Talent Pools

Clearly, relying on the existing pool of frontline talent to fill critical roles has proven woefully insufficient to meet the demand for medical workers. It’s time for employers to re-orient their perspectives and play a longer game when it comes to staffing strategy. If  enough trained nurses are not available to fill frontline positions, the industry needs to focus on widening the pool of qualified candidates. 

The torrent of bad news related to nursing roles will surely not prove helpful in encouraging young people to move into the profession, so employers need to be proactive in identifying and engaging the next generation of frontline talent. Look beyond nursing programs and staffing agencies and consider nontraditional talent pools. Employers need to spend the time and money necessary to incentivize hard-working and ambitious workers from non-healthcare industries to pursue careers in the medical field in order to prevent future issues.

It’s easy to be discouraged by recent developments, but when it comes to providing critical care to patients, failure is not an option. It’s time for healthcare executives and HR teams to embrace innovation in order to not only solve the current labor crisis, but make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Myra Norton

President & CEO

Myra joined Arena in November of 2012 after a rich career in data and analytics. Norton has extensive academic experience as an administrator and professor in mathematics and statistics at Temple University, Towson University and the United States Naval Academy. She has been featured as a speaker and facilitator at several industry events and she has collaborated with researchers from Harvard University, Babson College, University of Virginia, the National Institutes of Health, University of Maryland, and the University of Chicago.