As 2014 begins, there is a great deal of discussion regarding the job prospects for nurses, especially those just entering the profession. With confusing opinions and projections about the reality of a nursing shortage in the United States, nursing students and recent graduates are understandably concerned.

According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth in jobs for nurses is expected to increase 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, a rate of growth that apparently outpaces all other occupations.

With the advent of healthcare reform, an increase in the number of Americans with health insurance and a rapidly aging population, the need for nurses will no doubt swell. Meanwhile, even as hospitals potentially shed jobs in an effort to lower costs and streamline care, there will be a projected expansion in the demand for outpatient services, including chemotherapy and ambulatory surgery. Hospice, home health and palliative care are also areas expecting to see growth in the next decade.

In terms of the so-called nursing shortage, it had previously been predicted that an aging population of working nurses would retire in droves, with a resultant increase in demand for new graduates. However, the economic downturn of the last few years caused many older nurses to postpone retirement, creating a situation wherein hopeful new graduates have experienced significant difficulty finding viable positions.

As noted in a recent article in D Healthcare Daily, the number of new nursing graduates has risen significantly in the last decade. Statistics also show that 125,000 new registered nurses were added to the American workforce in 2011 and 2012, a number that may seem particularly low to some observers based on reports from the burgeoning ranks of both private and public nursing schools.

Even though nurses with bachelor's and master's degrees are offered jobs at a rate higher than most other professions, some nurse labor experts such as Peter Buerhaus of Vanderbilt University warn that predictions of future demand for nurses are still somewhat uncertain.

When it comes to advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners, predictions show that demand for this particular brand of healthcare provider is certain to increase, especially due to the well-known shortage of primary care physicians. According to the same D Healthcare Daily article, the number of primary care physicians grew by 50 percent from 1990 to 2012, while the number of nurse practitioners grew five-fold.

To further corroborate the opinion that nurse practitioners are in demand, Time Magazine reported in January that nurse practitioners are currently No. 4 of the top five hot jobs in the United States, along with software developer (No. 1), computer systems analyst (No. 2), dentist (No. 3) and pharmacist (No. 5).

In the face of a relatively uncertain job market for nurses with bachelor's degrees and a ballooning demand for nurse practitioners, perhaps an increasing number of nursing students will realize that remaining in school in the interest of earning an advanced degree is a worthwhile endeavor.

With many physicians opting for more remunerative medical specialties, it appears that doors are opening for advanced practice nurses who would like to enter the field of primary care. And as the population continues to age, geriatrics is certain to be an area that will continue to call for specially trained practitioners to care for the aging American populace.

Adding fuel to the educational fire, The Huffington Post recently reported that, while 25 percent of the American workforce may be eligible for programs offering federal loan forgiveness and consolidation for those working in specific fields (including nursing, teaching and the nonprofit sector), most Americans are uncertain that such programs even exist.

Despite the current difficulty that many new nursing graduates face in a tight job market, experts appear to agree that a slowly improving economy will allow many older nurses to choose retirement in the coming decade, making room for new nurses to more easily find gainful employment in their chosen field. Meanwhile, one struggle will be keeping unemployed or underemployed nurses engaged in the profession until the labor market significantly improves.

It's a reality. Americans are getting older, and there is no question that demand for nurses will increase as healthcare reform kicks into high gear. And since nurses are indeed the backbone of the healthcare sector, most industry watchers agree that it's only a matter of time that the prospects will once again be rosy for nurses willing to share their skills and compassion with an increasingly needful population.