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Travel nurses are in high demand during the COVID-19 crisis
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Travel nurses are in high demand during the COVID-19 crisis

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Much of the coverage of COVID-19 has centered around the shortages left in its wake: of ICU beds, of ventilators, of toilet paper. These shortages also extend to health care talent as hospitals face a rising tide of patients infected with the virus. Travel nurses offer one potential answer to the mismatch between supply and demand. A subset of RNs with the ability to work in multiple states, travel nursing professionals help narrow the ratio between patients and staff (while often commanding higher pay than their stationary colleagues).

“Travel nurses play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19,” says April Hansen, RN, MSN, and executive vice president at travel nurse agency Aya Healthcare. “Due to the fluid nature of this pandemic, travelers are able to quickly mobilize to areas where they are needed most and immediately use their skills to impact patient care.”

Still, the supply of travel nurses is relatively low—less than 1% of the nursing workforce, according to Reuters. But for independent-minded, change-embracing job seekers, it’s a great (and growing) career track. Here are a few reasons why.

You’ll make a difference

Travel nurses exist because of the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which allows RNs to work in both their home state and others participating in the compact (there are 34 so far). Beyond giving nurses the ability to pursue a nontraditional, travel-centric career path, the NLC helps hospitals fill staffing gaps and provide better patient care.

In fact, many states have created mandatory nurse-patient ratios thanks to demonstrated improvements in patient safety and reduction in mortality. But without travel nurses, meeting those requirements would be far more difficult—particularly now, with hospital staff stretched to their limit.

“Nurses are on the frontlines of this national crisis, and as hospitals experience a surge in patients, travel nurses add staffing capacity as well as relieve the staff nurses who have been working tirelessly for weeks,” Hansen says.

You’ll be well-compensated

The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks the broader nursing category as one of the fastest-growing occupations, projecting 12% annual growth by 2028. Due to an aging population and varying needs from one region to the next—something we’re hearing more about in light of COVID-19—travel nursing will likely be a key contributor to that growth.

While compensation varies from one state to the next, Nurse Journal places the average salary for domestic travel nurses around $72,000 (ahead of the $63,000 earned by regular RNs). But according to other sources, some employers will pay as much as $100,000 for experienced RNs. Add a slew of benefits including free housing and travel reimbursement, and you end up with a compensation package that’s unusually competitive—perhaps even more so in crisis times.

“Crisis contracts often have premium rates as responders are expected to mobilize quickly with limited notice, work extended hours and take on additional risk in the care environment,” Hansen says. “Compensation for travelers and core staff are not calculated the same way, since most travelers are not local to the area and incur additional costs as they maintain two homesteads.”

You’ll see the country

Travel nursing isn’t for everyone. You’ll need to be someone who’s comfortable in the role of the perpetual new kid on the block (not to mention spending months away from friends and family). But if you’re the kind of person who’s always wanted to get paid to travel the country—or the world, if you’re an international travel nurse—this is likely a career track worth considering.

So how do you get started? If you already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing, you’ve already met the base requirements for being a travel nurse. While certifications for different specialties do exist (and may be required for some roles), there’s no special degree or test you’ll need to pass to become a travel nurse.

Instead, you’ll want to get in touch with a staffing agency specializing in assignments for travel nurses—these organizations will help match your experience with their clients’ needs around the country.

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