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Oct. 28, 2021

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Nationwide shortage of nursing school educators evident at Clark College

Administrators and professors grapple with how to address the issue

By , Columbian staff writer
8 Photos
Clark College School of Nursing professors Mary Ellen Pierce, left, and Lisa Aepfelbacher, right, at the Clark College building at Washington State University Vancouver. Aepfelbacher and Pierce are two of five tenured faculty members the school of nursing has right now. Ideally the school would have 14 to 15 tenured faculty members.
Clark College School of Nursing professors Mary Ellen Pierce, left, and Lisa Aepfelbacher, right, at the Clark College building at Washington State University Vancouver. Aepfelbacher and Pierce are two of five tenured faculty members the school of nursing has right now. Ideally the school would have 14 to 15 tenured faculty members. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Congratulations are exchanged in the hallways. There’s champagne assembled on a table near the stage. Parents carry bouquets, and students wear suits and dresses at the Clark College School of Nursing’s pinning ceremony at Gaiser Hall on the Clark College Campus in Vancouver.

The pinning ceremony is a favorite event for nursing school professors Lisa Aepfelbacher and Mary Ellen Pierce. On Wednesday, the school propelled 34 students into one of the fastest growing professions in the U.S., but those students left behind a group of teachers who are experiencing the exact opposite workforce trend: a nationwide shortage.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects nursing to grow by 15 percent through 2026 at a “much faster than average” pace for all occupations, nursing school faculty is declining across the U.S. due to retirements and higher compensation offered in clinical and private-sector settings.

As of 2016, the American Association of College Nurses reported that there were 1,567 faculty vacancies identified across 821 nursing schools with baccalaureate and/or graduate programs. It’s expected that by 2022, more than 34,200 new educators will be needed.

“It’s an issue across the state and the nation,” said Clark College President Bob Knight.

Comparing salaries

  • Clark College’s starting salary for nursing faculty: $56,219
  • Salaries in the metro area for registered nurses: $65,450 to $120,670

A nationwide problem at the local level

At Clark College, faculty and administrators have grappled with how to attack the issue, which has been exacerbated by recent staff departures.

Since September 2017, four tenured nursing faculty members have retired. Another tenured professor left to teach in a different area of the college, and two tenure-track faculty members left for better positions elsewhere, said Brenda Walstead, the dean of business and health sciences. The school has hired three tenure-track faculty members to help replace those losses.

Right now, the school has 13 full-time faculty members, Walstead said, with five tenured faculty members, five full-time temporary faculty members and three tenure-track faculty members. She said ideally the school would have 14 or 15 tenured faculty.

Aepfelbacher and Pierce, who are tenured, said the shortage is causing them to work more hours than they should — Aepfelbacher said she works consistently on weekends, and Pierce said she works about 80 hours a week consistently. They said the increased workload is eroding goodwill with faculty and could lead to more departures in the near future.

While the school does have the ability to hire new staff, Aepfelbacher and Pierce said candidates are turning jobs down because the pay is too low for the job duties.

The professors said Clark’s nursing faculty starting salary is $56,219, which requires job experience and a graduate degree in nursing. That salary is lower than the annual salaries for registered nurses in the Vancouver and Portland area, which has a salary range of $65,450 to $120,670. Aepfelbacher and Pierce would like to see the starting salary raised to around $76,000 to be more competitive in recruitment.

“We’ve had a number of people who are interested,” Pierce said. “They come in to interview. They find out about the salary. They said, ‘We can’t make that work.’ We’ve had faculty, including people who are in tenure-track, who could not sustain because of compensation and had to leave.”

Aepfelbacher and Pierce have spoken with the administration about this issue, but they said they feel the administration isn’t treating the shortage with the proper sense of urgency.

“They say they value us, but we’re not seeing any action,” Aepfelbacher said.

The school faces accreditation in February, and Pierce, who has been at Clark for five years, and Aepfelbacher, who has been there eight years, said it’s the most worried they’ve been about the accreditation process in their time at the school. Aepfelbacher and Pierce are concerned with relying on part-time staff to fill tenured staff holes.

“We’re committed to try to keep the program together as much as we can,” Pierce said. “The concern is, that when you’re piecing things together like this, at some point the program quality begins to suffer. That’s not OK. That’s not consistent with our standards of practice, and we have an obligation to advocate for the viability and the quality of the program before that happens.”

Finding a solution

Clark has a salary scale for the nursing school that runs A through L. A is the lowest pay tier, L is the highest; nursing professors are brought in at B on the ladder. There have been discussions about starting salaries beginning higher on the ladder such as at C or D, Knight said.

Clark has ongoing collective bargaining with its faculty right now. Knight said raising nursing school salaries is something the union would have to agree on. He added “it’s going to be very tough for the union to vote it up when the rest of them aren’t getting that.”

“If I had all the money in the world to pay them, I still have to negotiate with the union. So the union may not agree to it. The union has to agree,” Knight said. “Their first priority is to raise salary for all faculty. I’m not going to speak for them, and I don’t want to bargain outside of the bargaining process, but I can’t just do it arbitrarily. We have to negotiate with the faculty through the bargaining process to allow that to happen.”

Aepfelbacher and Pierce feel that with nursing’s growing demand, and importance, the school should receive a higher starting salary since it’s a high-demand, high-need, high-specialty area that is difficult to recruit for with a lower salary.

Knight said that nursing isn’t the only area that could receive that designation, mentioning that welding, engineering, computer technology and dental hygiene are other places where you can make much more money in the field than teaching.

“There are other faculty across the school that potentially deserve increased salaries because of what they’re teaching,” Knight said. “It’s just heightened (at the nursing school) now because of the turnover.”

Sachi Horback, vice president of instruction at Clark College, said the school will look to solve the staffing shortage through a “multi-pronged” approach, which will include examining salary, among a number of other options. She mentioned the administration prefers this approach, because, in the short and long run, Clark will not be able to compete in compensation with the private sector.

Knight mentioned possibly having PeaceHealth provide a nurse to teach, or sharing teachers with Washington State University Vancouver, which would allow Clark teachers to instruct at the bachelor’s degree level. The administration also mentioned exploring how they can better advertise positions to recruit staff.

Horback said she wants to make sure the college is letting prospective candidates know the benefits of teaching, such as a shortened work year, the opportunity for professional development and the opportunity to further their education while teaching.

“We’re prioritizing, and we recognize the needs of nursing,” Horback said. “We recognize the needs of those tenured lines, so they’re there and ready. We’re looking at how to recruit and what that looks like. As a college, we also have to be aware of how this impacts all of the other high-demand areas. What’s the larger plan? And how do we tackle something that is nationwide? There’s not even a model that’s clear that has made an impact. I think we’re all looking and hoping that we can learn from each other in making a difference in this area.”

Aepfelbacher and Pierce said the shortage needs to be remedied soon. They said the faculty feels as though they’re being stretched thin, and that students are beginning to complain on evaluations about the amount of turnover, and not having sustained, longer relationships with more teachers. Pierce said those problems are creating “crumbling and a lack of cohesion in the program.”

“We recognize that this is a hard problem, that it’s a complex problem,” Pierce said. “We’re not unaware of that or unsympathetic to that. We would not be asking for this if we did not believe that we are at a point that has become critical and urgent. This program isn’t going to stay here by osmosis.”

Columbian staff writer