Hiring foreign nurses isn’t a detriment to U.S. nursing jobs

URBANA, Ill. — Foreign nurses working U.S. health care facilities aren’t causing a decline in wages or greater unemployment rates among their native born counterparts. That revelation comes from a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the importance of nurses has never been more clear. U.S. demand for nursing services is projected to increase in the coming years and decades due to the nation’s ever growing elderly population. Unfortunately, the actual nursing workforce is shrinking. One viable solution for this issue is to bring in nurses from other countries.

Opponents of this approach argue against it by stating foreign nurses take jobs away from American nurses and cause lower wages for everyone. Study authors say that just isn’t reality.

“Our findings show relying on foreign-educated registered nurses to balance demand and supply in the U.S. healthcare workforce does not hurt the employment of U.S.-educated nurses,” says lead author Hyeran Chung, a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE), in a university release.

Researchers examined data from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey between 1980-2015 for this project. Researchers looked to measure the employment of foreign-educated, registered nurses per 1,000 people in various U.S. commuting zones.

Foreign-born vs American-educated nurses

Study authors say they were motivated to perform this study by earlier projects that had concluded foreign nurses take away jobs from Americans. They felt there was more to the story than what that prior research suggests. For instance, while those earlier studies focused on foreign-born nurses, the team at UI focused on foreign-educated nurses.

“It really matters whether you’re looking at nurses who were born in the United States versus nurses who were trained here. We believe the real issue is the foreign-educated nurses; it’s bringing nurses from abroad to work in hospitals,” co-author Mary Arends-Kuenning explains. “The difference between our results and those of previous studies is primarily driven by the use of foreign-educated instead of foreign-born nurses.”

Many foreign nurses come to the United States as a child and study here to become a nurse. To account for this, researchers assumed foreign nurses received a U.S. education if they entered the country before age 25. “Many previous studies have used metropolitan statistical areas, which does make sense because many of the immigrant nurses settle down in bigger cities. But we wanted to include rural America, where the health care issues often have been severe,” Chung says.

Researchers also made use of a number of complex analytical techniques to further refine the findings. The authors wanted to validate their results as much as possible and looked for both the short and long term effects of foreign nurses on the nursing field in general.

Finding the right pairings in hospitals

Still, the team concludes that immigrant nurses have no significant impact on the employment of native nurses in either the short or the long term. Young, inexperienced native nurses may be somewhat hindered by foreign nurses. On the other hand, the most educated native nurses actually benefit from working with foreign-educated nurses in the short run.

“Hospitals might find that foreign-educated nurses are more productive when they work with highly educated native nurses, so they hire accordingly,” Arends-Kuenning recommends.

Most foreign nurses in the U.S. come from the Philippines, followed by Canada, and then India.

“With an aging population and increasing health care needs, hiring foreign nurses might be a viable way to meet the high demand for nursing care,” Chung concludes.

The study is published in the IZA Journal of Labor Policy.