Meeting the Moment for Nurses in Baton Rouge
The US saw 2% growth in nursing jobs over the last three years. At a time when demand for healthcare workers is high across the country, how did Baton Rouge reach 9% growth?
The Capital Region’s severe shortage of healthcare workers exacerbated by the COVID labor market may finally be easing. Job postings for nurses fell 22% between July and September alone, and they’ve fallen more than 35% in the last 12 months. With 1,054 job postings for nurses in Baton Rouge, our region’s demand for this critical healthcare occupation is at its lowest point since November 2019 – but there’s still work to be done.
Nationally, the demand for nurses isn’t following the same path. Job postings for nurses across the country, which numbered 810,530 in September, have increased 34% in the last year. These diverging trends – decreasing demand for nurses in Baton Rouge and increasing demand nationally – might be explained by Capital Region job growth. Baton Rouge has grown its nursing jobs 9% since 2019, the highest rate of any peer metro and nearly double the rate of second-place Birmingham.
There is still significant demand for nurses. Across the country, one nurse was hired for every eight job postings in September. But in Baton Rouge, where one nurse was hired for every four job postings (double the national rate), things are looking a little better. Having an adequately staffed and trained team of nurses contributes to better patient outcomes, so we’re going to look at a couple trends that may help explain why Baton Rouge is growing its nurse workforce at such a high rate.
Demand for nurses has been high throughout COVID, as evidenced by the rise of the travel nurse. Unable to fill their nursing ranks with full-time staff hires, hospital networks and clinics across the country turned to a temporary solution by hiring travel nurses (who often sign eight- or thirteen-week contracts) at much higher hourly rates than full-time staff nurses. Travel nurses, who were often full-time staff nurses at hospitals or clinics before making the jump into travel nursing, serve as an important stopgap to the nursing shortage. This solution comes at a cost – Ochsner spent $141 million more in 2021 for temporary labor compared to 2019, as reported by The Advocate.
Student enrollment in local nursing programs has increased, and there’s reason to believe at least some of this increase has been driven by rising wages. Southern University, Franciscan University and Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC) are the three local higher education institutions at which students can earn a credential in licensed practical nursing or in registered nursing. Becoming a licensed practical nurse requires fewer years of education compared to registered nurses; Franciscan University’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing trains students to become registered nurses.
Total enrollment in nursing programs increased 6% between Fall 2019 and Fall 2021. Despite overall institutional enrollment falling 8% between 2019 and 2021, BRCC’s nursing programs increased enrollment by nearly 5%. BRCC’s licensed practical/vocational nurse training program saw a whopping 40% growth in enrollment between 2019 and 2021, the largest of the four programs. This track requires fewer years of schooling compared to registered nurses and allows program graduates to enter the workforce more quickly.
More students are graduating, too. According to data from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the number of nursing graduates increased 27% between the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years for the programs at Southern University and BRCC.
And while there is some research supporting the idea that rising wages for nurses can contribute to increased enrollment in nursing programs, rising wages and increased enrollment alone can’t explain all of Baton Rouge’s success. Hourly pay rates for nurses in Baton Rouge have risen - especially for licensed practical/vocational nurses – but median hourly wages are still lower in Baton Rouge compared to national wages.
Wages are rising and student enrollment is up, but underlying these trends is the impressive collaboration we’ve seen between local healthcare institutions and education providers.
Meeting the Moment - Local Collaboration
Big picture, demand for nurses isn’t going anywhere, and it was already high before COVID. Louisiana’s pre-pandemic Nursing Workforce Demand Report cited that, in 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that jobs for registered nurses would grow 12% faster than the average for all occupations. While COVID exacerbated our present-day need for healthcare professionals, the demand was already there pre-COVID. Market forces alone can’t explain Baton Rouge’s success growing its nursing workforce – local collaboration between education and healthcare institutions have played a critical role.
Collaboration efforts have been widespread; here are a few examples of what we’ve seen over the last couple years:
Southern University and BRCC announced a joint partnership that makes it easier for BRCC nursing graduates to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Southern University.
BRCC increased their registered nurse cohort sizes from 60 to 120, and they are now partnering with Our Lady of the Lake and Baton Rouge Clinic to help medical assistants become licensed practical nurses.
Agreements are in place for Baton Rouge General to open a medical program at Park Elementary School.
The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System announced a $12 million investment for BRCC to build a new nursing/allied health building.
These types of collaborative efforts were taking place before the pandemic, too. In 2018, Baton Rouge General partnered with William Carey University to expand the hospital’s pre-existing two-year nursing program into a bachelor’s degree program. And the acceleration of these healthcare partnerships hasn’t been limited to nursing programs. Earlier this year, Our Lady of the Lake announced a $245 million investment in LSU with funds dedicated to the LSU Student Health Center, the LSU School of Medicine New Orleans Baton Rouge Branch Campus and the new LSU Interdisciplinary Science Building, among other initiatives. And although not a partnership between institutions, Franciscan University’s ongoing construction of its new, $28 million dollar cornerstone campus building, St. Francis Hall, further demonstrates the magnitude of investment being made in Baton Rouge’s healthcare sector.
These partnerships between local institutions are helping students get the education they need to enter the workforce as healthcare professionals. We have 900 more nurses in Baton Rouge than we did just three years ago, and these investments in our healthcare ecosystem have and will continue to pay dividends on the health of our region’s residents.
 The Board of Regents only publishes graduation numbers for public institutions.
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