COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) — South Carolina’s nursing colleges are trying to come up with strategies to fight what’s described as a critical shortage of nurses in the state. “We’re going to have deaths. We’re going to have unintentional injuries happen. And right now across the state there’s a critical shortage of nurses at the bedside,” says Ronda Hughes, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nursing Leadership at the University of South Carolina.

She says at anything past a nurse vacancy rate of five percent, the risk to patients doubles or even triples. In some places in South Carolina, the vacancy rate is 20 percent.

USC had a job fair Friday for nursing students that attracted hospitals from across South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Caroline Flynn says students do talk about the fact that they’ll all have jobs waiting for them when they graduate. “I really like the patient-centered care,” she says. “I love that nurses really take care of the patient and get to spend a lot of time with them and really take care of their needs, and so that’s what really drew me to nursing.”

Hughes says the state needs about 2,000 nurses. She says there are several reasons for the shortage, which has been going on for years. “Part of it is if you look at the work. Who likes to work shift work anymore? It’s hard work. And with the growing aging population and more complex needs of patients, it’s hard work. So when nurses come home from work they’re tired. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. And if you look at all the new requirements as well, it’s hard to keep on top of that,” she says.

Because of that, a lot of new nurses leave after a couple of years, just when they’ve gotten the experience they need to be effective in a hospital setting. “Hospitals need highly-skilled nurses so it’s hard to basically put any graduate nurse directly into patient care. You need to do some kind of residency and orientation program,” Hughes says. “Many of the hospitals are cutting those programs, so they’re wanting the skilled nurses but they’re cutting the programs to help the nurses make those transitions.”

She says another reason for the shortage is that a lot of Baby Boomer nurses, with decades of experience, are retiring.

There’s also a shortage of teachers. Hughes says, “We have a hard time filling nurse faculty positions. A lot of the nurse faculty are getting older, close to retirement. It takes years to replace a nurse faculty member. Generally they need a doctorate or, at least, in a tech school, they need a Masters degree. So that takes at least two years to four years, if not longer, to train. And then there’s the cost. You can make more in practice. Say, nurse-practitioners can make more in practice than they can teaching, so we have a hard time retaining clinical faculty as well.”

She says USC is working with other nurse leaders and universities across the state to ask the legislature for more funding to hire more nursing faculty and increase faculty salaries.

Andrea Butler, the senior nurse recruiter for Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, was at USC’s job fair Friday. She says, “I think we have what we need, but it’s just the fear of what if, and what happens next week or next year? So we’re trying to prepare for the future.”