Viewpoint: Elizabeth Fitch, Tennessee should address shortage of Nurses & Health Professionals


Tennessee must address shortage of nurses, other allied health professionals | Opinion

Tennessee state should streamline partnerships between hospitals and colleges to ensure the state has enough allied health professionals.

Elizabeth A. Fitch
Guest columnist
  • Elizabeth A. Fitch is associate professor of biology at Motlow State Community College and was the former dean of the Smyrna campus.

Considering the aging baby boomer generation and the COVID-19 pandemic, there has rarely been a time that allied health care professionals like nurses and medical lab technologists have been in more demand.

Low pay and aging faculty

Elizabeth Fitch

Yet community colleges in Middle Tennessee, for example, require faculty members to have a minimum of a master’s degree in their respective fields while paying them a starting salary of only around $40,000 a year. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the same professionals can go into the non-teaching workforce and make an average of $79,444 with the same degree. It is hard to reconcile the nearly 50% pay cut these professionals are expected to take in order to teach the next generation of nurses.

The applicant pools for allied health instructors at Tennessee community colleges are continuously declining, and the turnover rate for instructors is high. Allied health instructor searches often yield only a few applicants for advertised faculty positions, with the candidates usually expressing concerns over the low pay. Applicants usually note that taking a faculty position will cause a severe pay cut in comparison to their current hospital positions.

Adding to a community college’s difficulty in finding instructors, hospitals are also short on staff and are willing to fight to keep their medical lab technologists and nurses by offering higher pay to those who consider leaving to teach. Nationally, the average technician and nurse are approaching retirement age, with the AACN reporting that for “master’s degree-prepared nurse faculty, the average ages for professors, associate professors, and assistant professors were 57.1, 56.0, and 49.6 years, respectively.” The numbers of these professionals is headed toward disastrous lows.

Peggy Sutton, Grassland Middle School nurse, prepares a shot station Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, minutes before Williamson County Schools staff arrived to receive their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Photo courtesy of Tennessean and Anika Exum

If both hospitals and colleges are short on staff and faculty with these allied health credentials, we should streamline partnerships between the two in our state in order to get more students the needed degrees.

Increased demand but not enough room

Initiatives like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect have increased the demand for allied health programs with an influx of students. Many have their dreams of becoming a nurse or another allied health professional dashed when they don’t get accepted into the programs. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported in 2020 that 80,407 students were rejected from programs in 2019 not because they weren’t qualified, but because of “an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints. Most nursing schools responding to the survey pointed to faculty shortages as a top reason for not accepting all qualified applicants into their programs.”

Students in Tennessee pursuing allied health careers are left with promised tuition but lost dreams. There is obviously a demand, but where are the opportunities? How can we let this continue to happen? Tennessee Reconnect and Promise scholarships didn’t create the shortage of seats but have exacerbated the issue. The state’s educational institutions do not have the allocated funds to hire more instructors and pay them wages that would entice them out of other fields of practice. Unfortunately, we are merely steering some students into a situation where they can take only general education classes and then have to give up on their dreams because they couldn’t get a place in our programs.

While the educational initiatives and scholarships in Tennessee have been monumental, garnering worthy national praise and attention, there’s a lack of big-picture planning and follow-through in some areas at its colleges. Our citizens cannot acquire the education for the jobs they need if the state does not address the low pay of faculty, facilitate the partnerships needed for clinical training, and provide the budgets needed for expansion at state-funded educational institutions. We need to make sure we can keep our promise to the students and citizens of Tennessee