America is getting old. Approximately one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2040, according to the Urban Institute; that figure is up from one in eight in 2000. That growth in the nation's elder population will coincide with increased demand for healthcare services. Nurses will be on the front lines to provide it.
But nurses have gotten scarce, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the nursing shortage. America needs an additional 275,000 nurses, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. While the pandemic has heightened the shortage, other factors have also played a significant role:
“If you lose one or two nurses, that makes a difference," says Audrey Snyder, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Nursing and president of Rural Nurse Organization. “These hospitals are small hospitals and they don’t have a large nurse workforce."
Travel nurses have become a popular option for healthcare facilities looking to fill the gap. They provide essential services to understaffed hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, and anywhere nurses are needed. They sign short-term contracts–13 weeks, on average–and usually earn much higher wages than their stationary peers.
Sound good? If so, you may be wondering how to become a travel nurse. This article answers that question and also discusses:
Nurses who travel for contract work take on a variety of responsibilities. Hawai’i Pacific University, which offers an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), lists typical duties of a travel nurse:
Travel nurses must earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). They must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Since travel nurses are expected to hit the ground running wherever they work, bedside experience is a must. Newly licensed nurses fresh out of school need not apply.
Travel nurses can find work across the healthcare spectrum, but some specialties are in particularly high demand, according to Trusted Nurse Staffing. They include:
Anyone with a nursing license to practice and some experience has already met most of the requirements for becoming a travel nurse. Other factors may also come into play, including education level and licensing rules that vary from state to state. Placement agencies also play a significant role in travel nursing. Let’s look at these components in more detail.
While travel nurses may have an ADN or BSN, some healthcare facilities and agencies will only work with someone who has earned a BSN, according to travelnursing.org. That’s often true of large healthcare systems, particularly ones with Magnet designation–those recognized by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for meeting five key criteria:
A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, though not required, can open additional doors. Combine an MSN with additional work experience to become a Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP), a job that usually pays much more than the salary of an RN, according to Hawai’i Pacific University. Like their counterparts in fixed locations, travel NPs usually specialize in one field of medicine, such as adult-gerontology or family care.
Licensing requirements vary depending on your destination, with some more complex than others. If your state license comes from a state that participates in the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact (eNLC), you’re good to go in any other eNLC state. Otherwise you’ll have to apply for a license to practice in your destination state and receive one before starting your contract. States outside the eNLC include Alaska and California, travelnursing.org reports. California has an especially lengthy wait time and highly specific requirements, so plan accordingly.
Travel nursing agencies generally require one to two years of experience. “Travel nurses are expected to hit the ground running when they arrive at a new assignment," Medical Solutions reports. Expect your orientation to be brief and the amount you need to learn voluminous. You'll have to integrate quickly into an existing team of healthcare professionals, and you'll have to be comfortable working among nurses who know you're probably earning significantly more than they are. Travel nursing can be more stressful than conventional nursing, which is already plenty stressful.
Hospitals may require even higher levels of experience under certain circumstances, such as a five-year minimum for a Level 1 trauma center with a high acuity CCU.
Agencies help travel nurses find work and may offer additional resources, including health and dental insurance, vacation and sick time, housing or housing stipends, tuition reimbursement, and retirement plans. They may also help with certification and recertification. You’ll need to do your homework to find a good fit, because agencies are abundant and they vary by size and services.
Travelnursing.org recommends you keep a spreadsheet tracking each staffing agency's benefits package, assignment lengths, housing options, and areas of operation. The site recommends considering the following factors when choosing a travel nursing agency:
Travel nurses work with agencies to find the best fit in terms of responsibilities, geography, pay, and any other priorities. Not every assignment will meet the criteria, and travel nurses don’t have to accept every assignment offered to them. An especially good match could turn into a permanent position for a travel nurse who’s ready to put away their suitcase.
Median annual pay for registered nurses was $77,600 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Travel nurses have the potential to make considerably more. The average annual salary of travel RNs was $80,900 as of January 2022, Hawai’i Pacific University reports, but some made upwards of $120,000 per year. Travelnursing.org reports a much higher average salary for travel nurses: $102,625.
Some staffing agencies list travel nurse positions with lofty weekly salaries from $5,044 to $9,562, says NBC News. According to National Public Radio, some travel nurses have even found assignments paying $10,000 a week. “That’s a life-changing number," says Sara Dean of Mt. Juliet, Tenn. “That’s a number that helps you pay off debt, move out of your grandma’s basement or whatever."
Here are the 10 best-paying states for travel nurses along with their average annual salaries, according to Indeed:
Pay is not the only consideration in determining a nursing career path, of course. Travel nursing has a number of pros and cons to take into account before hitting the highway.
The opportunity to live in new cities falls in both categories. On the plus side, it can offer adventure, an exciting change of scenery, the opportunity to meet new people, and a chance to sample possible places to live long term without making a commitment up front. But living away from home for weeks or months can be complicated by family, pets, and other responsibilities. Some families have enough flexibility and resources to travel as a unit, but that’s not an option for everyone.
The chance to make considerably more money than staff nurses is another big draw. But a salary boost can come with significant new challenges, including complicated licensing issues and feeling disconnected from a workforce and community where you’re only playing tourist.
Travel nursing gives you a chance to expand your work experience and sample different types of assignments, growing your skill set and enhancing your resume. If you have the qualifications and feel ready to try something exciting and new, travel nursing may be for you.
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