The COVID-19 pandemic upended much of the world’s healthcare framework, changing the shape and fabric of medical personnel employment globally. For many hospitals in the US, mass resignations and retirements have created a persistent staffing hangover and nursing shortage with no easy cure.
Rural hospitals have been hit particularly hard by the stressors brought on by the pandemic. In places where recruitment was already a challenge, finding nursing staff during and after pandemic peaks continues to prove difficult. Retention is now not only about hourly wages and benefits but also about keeping local nurses in town.
Demand has grown for short-term residencies, some of which pay $5,000 to $10,000 per week. This has compounded the problem, tempting on-staff nurses to leave regular positions and seek out their own high-paying travel positions.
Stabilizing staff nurse positions will be a challenge for the foreseeable future. Healthcare facilities will continue to struggle with high turnover rates until nurses are offered higher pay and attractive benefits to stay on as local hospital staff. Many will continue to seek out short-term opportunities that pay top dollar and allow geographical freedom. That means looking for work as a travel nurse.
So, how much do travel nurses make? This article explores that question and also discusses:
A travel nurse meets all the same qualifications as an on-staff nurse but works under short-term contracts with clinics and hospitals in high-need areas. Travel nurse positions can be in any of the nursing specialties: apediatrics, critical care, labor and delivery, medical-surgical/telemetry. Some specialities pay more than others.
Travel nurse agencies oversee the placement of nurses in positions that help fill healthcare staffing shortages and offer appealing incentives. Such benefits include generous pay packages, retention bonuses, referral/sign-on bonuses, loan forgiveness, travel reimbursements, and housing stipends. Some agencies impose additional requirements for their workforce on top of full practice licensure and two to three years of experience in nursing positions.
Travel nurses have always existed as part of the profession, but recent pressures on the healthcare system in the US have called for more travel nursing assignments. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that, by 2030, states including California, South Dakota, Georgia, New Jersey, Texas, South Carolina, and Alaska will experience state-wide nursing shortages. Without enough trained professionals to fill the need, competition will remain tough and qualified nurses will continue to be in high demand.
Travel nurses are hired as temporary staff in hospitals and other healthcare facilities with personnel shortages in operating rooms, neonatal intensive care units, medical ICUs, or in maternity, oncology, or geriatric departments. They perform their jobs alongside full-time nursing staff but may only stay on in their placement position for a few weeks or months before taking a break or moving on to another assignment.
Depending on their rank, department, and specialty, these nurses may assist in surgeries, work in critical care alongside physicians, take vitals and medical histories, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications, make referrals to specialists, or oversee patient care. There are more than three times as many nurses in the US as there are physicians, and nurses are found in every specialty area of medicine, working independently and alongside doctors and specialists.
Education requirements depend on the nursing agency or assignments available. A BSN or an associate’s degree is required for any RN job, while an MSN is necessary for any advanced placement registered nurse (APRN) position.
Traveling nurses need to fill licensing requirements for each state unless they are licensed and planning to practice in one of the 25 compact nursing states that allow multi-state licensure.
Placement agencies may also require one or more certifications. The most common include Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN), Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCRN), and Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN). In addition to keeping these certifications up-to-date, nurses are expected to be certified in Basic Life Support (BLS), Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), and Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS).
If you are in a position to be flexible with your living arrangements, a travel nursing position can offer real benefits. Working with an agency means you can specify the types of positions that interest you and gain experience in specialities you hope to focus on in your career. Or you may love the variety that moving around to new locations provides you—allowing you to try out new career options, cities, and states—before committing to a more permanent position.
Of course, placements out of your home state mean time away from home. Depending on your personal circumstances, this may not be a draw. If you have dependents in school, for instance, it may be more difficult to live out of town for prolonged stretches.
The potentially biggest pro for a stint as a travel nurse is average salary. A travel nurse averages $118,400 per year or $57 per hour. Specializations and location can greatly increase those numbers.
Staffing agencies can help negotiate a traveling nurse’s hourly rate as well as incentives like benefits and compensation packages with tax-free bonuses and stipends. The average travel nurse salary comes to around $120,000 per year, but a few factors can raise that number quite a bit.
One factor is where you are willing to travel. Ziprecruiter lists specific cities as standouts for the highest-paying travel nursing locations. They include Atkinson, Nebraska ($2,838 per week), San Francisco, California ($2,712 per week), and Marysville, Washington ($2,637 per week).
The highest-paying states are those with nursing shortages and larger populations. Top-paying states include New York ($2,524 per week) and California ($2,452 per week). But keep in mind that states like these also typically have a very high cost of living, so housing and daily costs will need to be considered in any contracted agreement.
SOme specialities better more than others. Operating room travel nurses average $3,491 per week. Other averages based on specialty include: pediatrics ($3,445 per week), telemetry ($3,390 per week), medical surgical ($3,289 per week), and oncology ($3,258 per week). The top-paying speciality is nurse anesthesiology, (CRNA) which can earn 57 percent more than the average base salary.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that nursing jobs for nurses holding MSN degrees have a positive outlook for the next decade, with job growth tracking at 40 percent. This is substantially higher than average for other occupations. High demand for nursing positions means that weekly wages for nurses willing to travel should remain competitive.
As with pay, demand will vary by state and region. The US Department of Health and Human Services predicts that the demand for RNs will continue to increase in California, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina over the next decade. States like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia project to have much lower demand. Mapping out demand will impact where a traveling nurse might decide to stay, but those who want to stay in the travel nursing workforce can follow this demand wherever they choose to go next. With seemingly endless choices, travel nurses can pursue locations that best fit their needs and best fill their pocket books.
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