Nurses are vitally important professionals who care for us when we’re at our most vulnerable. Whether we meet them in doctor’s surgeries, emergency rooms or even disaster areas and war zones, we rely on nurses to help us and our loved ones get better.

But while nursing can be a deeply rewarding career it can also be emotionally taxing, and the hours are often long and irregular — with the result that healthcare employers often struggle to fill roles. Let’s take a look at the state of the nursing labor market, and ways employers can attract more candidates. Because, let’s face it — we can’t live without nurses.

Employer demand for nurses is high — and climbing

Today demand for nurses is greater than ever. People around the world are living longer, and of course older people tend to use more healthcare services. In fact, according to the United Nations, the number of people in the world aged 60 or older is expected to more than double by 2050, exceeding two billion. In the U.S., another factor is leading to increased demand for healthcare: The Department of Health and Human Services reports that 20 million individuals have gained insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Little wonder, then, that of the more than 800 different occupations listed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses are projected to have the second-highest job growth over the next ten years. When you look solely at occupations that require a bachelor’s degree, registered nurses take the number 1 spot. Today there are nearly 3 million nurses employed in the U.S. and 439,300 more positions are expected by 2024, a 16% increase from 2014.

This strong demand is reflected in Indeed data: Jobs for registered nurses make up 8.4% of all postings on Indeed in the US; more than 3% in the U.K.; and more than 1% each in Australia, Canada and Germany. The staffing industry plays a significant role in meeting this demand for nursing talent: healthcare jobs account for 36% of staffing firm postings on Indeed.

Lagging talent supply can’t keep pace

However there’s just one problem. The current supply of nursing talent is not keeping up with skyrocketing demand. We’ve all heard technology jobs are notoriously hard to fill — but in fact, in the U.S. today it’s actually harder to find nurses than software engineers and other countries are also facing serious shortages.

Graph showing share of postings and clicks for nurse/RN positions illustrates severe nurse talent gap.
Indeed tracked the share of postings and clicks for nurse/RN positions in September 2015 and found a severe nurse talent gap across markets. In the US, the share of nurse/RN postings was more than 7.5% but the share of clicks was only 2.5%. In the UK, the share of nurse/RN postings was more than 2.5% but the share of clicks was less than 1%. Similar gaps exist in Australia, Germany and Canada, though both the share of postings and clicks were below 2.5%.

In fact, demand for nurses is growing so fast that the pipeline of candidates just can’t keep up. Today 8 of the world’s 12 largest economies have a serious nurse shortage. Russia has just half of the nurses it needs, Japan and the U.S. have only about a third and the U.K. — most worryingly of all — has less than a fifth. Did somebody just say “crisis”?

The average age of employed nurses is rising as well, from 42.7 in 2000 to 44.6 in 2010. As more nurses approach retirement age, new talent is needed to take their places in the field, but a lack of teaching faculty has slowed the educational pipeline for nursing candidates.

The impact of the global nursing shortage is clear: When hospitals have insufficient staff, nurses are overworked, stressed out and more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs. As a result, patient care can suffer.

What employers can do to feed the nursing pipeline

How can we address this shortage and fend off a potential breakdown in our healthcare systems? Organizations like the American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommend strategies to speed the educational pipeline and optimize workplaces for an aging workforce.

Better compensation, greater professional autonomy, stronger management and training programs, and more flexibility in location and scheduling could make nursing careers more attractive and rewarding for job seekers. Changes to the profession, like the rise of travel nursing for example, are giving nurses some of that flexibility. On Indeed, the share of postings for travel nurses has risen from 13% to 18% in the past year alone.

So while employers may face obstacles when it comes to attracting the nursing talent, listening closely to what nurses want should make a big difference to their efforts. In fact, the simple act of listening is probably one of the best gifts employers could give their nurses today, or any day.