Maine’s nursing shortage is expected to continue to grow over the next 15 years despite a wave of applications at nursing schools across the state, a school administrator says.

Competition for limited space in the state’s 13 nursing programs has soared over the past five years. But those programs are unable to churn out enough licensed nurses to meet an ever-growing demand, said Sharon Kuhrt, director of Central Maine Medical Center’s School of Nursing in Lewiston.

“We won’t be able to graduate enough nurses,” she said.

In 2000, the shortage was estimated at 1,500 nurses, or 12 percent of the total nursing work force, according to the federal Health Resources Services Administration. Agency projections show that shortage stretching to 31 percent of the work force by 2020, Kuhrt said.

Last year, Maine nursing programs graduated 413 registered nurses, only a 5 percent increase over the previous year, according to a University of Southern Maine study.

Most nurses in the state – averaging 49 years old – are nearing retirement age. At the same time, new nursing positions continue to spring up, adding to the shortage.

CMMC’s program has added 24 spaces to its nursing program since 1999, now totaling 64 spots, in an effort to help fill that gap, Kuhrt said.

State law mandates maximum student-teacher ratios for clinical classes. And attracting qualified faculty has been difficult, she said. Most nurses with advanced degrees are able to earn nearly as much as those with undergraduate degrees by doing clinical work.

Applications flooded Maine’s nursing programs in the late 1990s following press accounts of a national and statewide nursing shortage. Public service announcements helped lure would-be nurses into the profession.

But nursing programs have not been able to keep pace, school administrators said.

In 1999, about 80 applicants competed for 40 places at CMMC, Kuhrt said. Last year, the school received 310 applications for its 64 spots.

At Central Maine Community College in Auburn, 190 hopefuls applied for the school’s 32 nursing program openings, about double the number from five years earlier, said Anne Schuettinger, chairwoman of nursing. An estimated 40 to 50 of those who were turned away likely would have been accepted to the program had the school been able to offer more placements, she said.

Due to a sudden surge in applications four years ago, CMCC changed to selective admissions from its former first-come, first-serve rolling admissions policy, Schuettinger said.

The field of nursing is attracting some people from other industries for its relative job security and higher-paying wages, she said.

The school has not been able to expand its classroom to accept more students, she said, citing high costs associated with the college’s second-most-expensive program and a commitment not to increase tuitions.

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