We are more than halfway through the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and it couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. For the 18th year in a row, nursing has consistently been voted the highest profession in honesty and ethics, according to the most recent Gallup poll.

And in the throes of a global pandemic, organizations and communities everywhere are creatively showing their support for nurses and other front-line workers through compassion and expressions of raucous gratitude.

However, just as communities are scrambling to meet the unprecedented demands on our healthcare system this year, they must also think through and start preparing for the future of the profession.

Related content: Preparing students to enter the workforce

The current pandemic has laid bare our country’s woeful under-investment in healthcare professionals—particularly in the nursing field. In the United States, a shortage of 1 million nurses is anticipated by 2030. And according to a report by the World Health Organization, 9 million more nurses are needed globally within the decade to ensure universal health care coverage.

These numbers are additional proof that we’re at a pivotal moment in healthcare history. The good news is we have the tools to start preparing for the continuing and future nursing skills gap. Part of that preparation involves rethinking how we’re attracting students to the nursing profession – and that can start as early as high school.

The truth is that we will not be prepared to tackle future diseases and illnesses or serve our aging population without connecting more students to the field and filling the nursing skills gap.

More than asking them what they want to be when they grow up, there are clear benefits to students taking career learning courses in high school. Career education allows students to explore potential career paths in the early stages of their academic journey, and studies show that students enrolled in career learning programs are more engaged. An impressive number of students–93 percent–who take career learning courses go on to graduate high school.

Why--and how--we should address the nursing skills gap

When it comes to nursing, a robust career-oriented curriculum can prepare students to work as Medical Assistants and Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA). It can even enable students to sit for gold-standard national certifications, plus begin working in the field and ultimately work toward their nursing degree. There are also several emerging pathways to become a Registered Nurse. One potential pathway after becoming a Medical Assistant or CNA is obtaining an Associate degree in Nursing (ADN) or Diploma RN through a two-year program.

Although a bachelor’s degree is recommended as the industry-standard for entry-level nursing positions, these pathways remain an economical and viable option for entering the workforce quickly. Diploma programs are hospital-based and prepare graduates for direct patient care. Meanwhile, associate degree programs equip graduates with clinical skills and a strong academic foundation. Both programs prepare students to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam for licensure, which is the mechanism of entry to practice as a Registered Nurse.

Becoming a nurse is indeed achievable, and there are many pathways available to help students reach their goals. Career education can provide early exposure to a career in nursing and help give students a head start on making a difference–a difference that we’ve never been more aware of and grateful for.

The campaign for 2020 being the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife actually got its start last year–pre-pandemic–with the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO teams wanted to encourage global investment in healthcare professionals in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. I can’t imagine Ms. Nightingale would have predicted what a worldwide appreciation 2020 has brought for the brave men and women like her, and for the students striving to follow in their footsteps.

About the Author:

Dr. Sherri Wilson is the Health Careers Program Director at K12 Inc. Previously, Dr. Wilson served as a public health nursing administrator with the Fairfax, VA County Health Department. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Hampton University, a Master of Public Administration degree with a concentration in Health Policy from Seton Hall University, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.