UK’s ‘Cure’ for a Critical Nursing Shortage

Britain’s largest healthcare organization hopes to fill 40,000 jobs by paying for nursing education. It may be a preview of how to fill other critical job roles.

It’s a problem the UK has been facing since the height of the pandemic—a shortage in nurse. And with threats of a second virus wave either looming large, few see an answer.

But there may be one. The National Health Service, Britain's taxpayer-funded healthcare firm, is tackling a shortage of 40,000 nurses by taking the bold step of funding the education of nurses. Experts say, it’s a move which could become an option for business leaders with other critical skill shortages.

Starting this fall, students choosing to study nursing in England will receive a bursary of at least ?5,000 ($6,250) each year that they study from the NHS. Those payments are enough to cover more than half the cost of the tuition. Even more unusual is that the money doesn't have to get paid back no matter whether the student pursues a nursing career or not.

The cash incentive could be looked at like an advanced sign-on bonus. “If you looked at reward in its very broadest sense it's an upfront delivery of pay to encourage people to go down a career path," says Ben Frost, Korn Ferry's global manager for pay. The government-funded move also helps rectify the fact that the worry over student debt has pushed many people toward more lucrative careers than nursing. "It is not the highest-paid job out there, and high tuition fees can mean larger student debts," he says. The thought of such debts can be off-putting to some potential students.

Frost also looks at the government's program as a way of securing a pipeline of skilled workers for the future. That's particularly pertinent for training that is specialized and where students aren't easily able to switch to another career track. Specialized engineering is a clear example of a field where this sort of arrangement could work. "It doesn't work so well liberal arts degrees or other general study programs," Frost says.

Some private sector companies run similar schemes where they put people through degree training programs and then ask for a minimum level of service to their employer in return. Those who leave the company before they have worked a minimum period typically need to repay the cost. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a minimum period of time to be worked for the company,” says Tom Hellier, head of rewards and benefits for UK and Ireland.

But companies that have the lowest level of restrictions on employees can reap greater rewards from their workers in terms of increased loyalty, says Hellier. “Placing fewer conditions on employees might signal that the organization trusts them to show more loyalty,” he says. “In my experience the level of trust in the relationship is one of the keys to unlocking greater motivation and engagement.”

Britain's Ministry of Defence rotates some people through positions at defense companies who make military equipment. That sort of rotation raises awareness of how the companies work. "That's an inspired way to help introduce greater diversity in ways of thinking,” Hellier says. But there are risks. “If people do go, they might not want to go back and there is a risk that people in the military might not fit with the private sector environment.”