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A report released Friday by the state labor department shows that retirements, increased health care demand and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an incredibly tight labor market for skilled nurses.

Just 1.2% of registered nurses and 2.3% of licensed practical nurses reported they were unemployed and actively seeking work, according to the report summarizing the results from the National Council State Board of Nursing 2020 survey.

The report also found that multi-state licensing has helped with workforce shortages, and that 40% of RNs and 26% of LPNs working in Montana held multi-state licenses.

The report also found Native nurses are underrepresented, accounting for just 2% of nurses in the state while Natives are more than 6% of Montana’s population.

Health care facilities around the state have reported problems with staffing, especially in jobs that provide care to patients, during the pandemic. At one point Bozeman Health said it had more than 400 job openings. Nurses have reported fatigue from the pandemic, as well as hostile work environments from people refusing to comply with health mandates.

The average age of registered nurses in the state fell nearly a year, to 47.6, which the report said suggests older workers are retiring. Just over 18% of RNs said they planned to retire or leave the field within the next five years, which could equal 570 workers exiting annually.

The report also found the number of licensed LPNs out of the labor force increased from 15% to 23% over the last five years, citing an increase in retirements. LPNs are aging, with the median age up nearly three years to 53.5. And almost half of LPNs reported they planned on retiring or leaving the workforce over the next five years, for a drop of 175 LPNs annually.

LPNs generally work in nursing homes or in ambulatory care, with 9% working in hospitals, the survey noted.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital role nurses play in the state’s health care system and economy. Ensuring the state’s workforce is healthy and safe is critical to continued economic growth,” the report reads. ... The health care sector has been acutely impacted by the workforce shortage due to the increased workload placed on healthcare workers during the pandemic, many of whom have grown mentally and physically weary from working on the front lines. Even after the pandemic, a growing and aging population will increase the demand for healthcare services.”

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