The NHS is facing a nursing recruitment crisis unless it does more to attract school leavers into the profession, union leaders say.
The Royal College of Nursing says over the next decade 200,000 nurses will retire – a third of the total number.
It said school leavers were snubbing nursing as a career, and called on ministers to run campaigns in schools to tackle the problem.
The government admitted more should be done to promote nursing.
It’s clear that the image of nursing does not reflect reality
Royal College of Nursing
Previous research has shown that student applications by the under 20s are declining with nearly half of all nurse students now over 30, suggesting that more and more nurses are entering the profession after working as something else beforehand.
An RCN poll, published at its conference in Harrogate, of more than 8,600 seven to 17-year-olds showed nursing was the least preferred career in the public sector – behind police, teachers, doctors and fire-fighters.
Only one in 20 said their preferred career choice was to be a nurse.
The most common reasons for not wanting to be a nurse was a belief it was a dirty job or not liking blood.
Many said higher pay would make nursing more attractive – the average starting salary is still just over £20,000.
RCN general secretary Peter Carter said he wanted to see the government doing more to promote nursing as a career option in schools.
“It’s clear that the image of nursing does not reflect reality.
“Modern nursing is a dynamic career, providing an incredibly broad range of opportunities and a real chance to have an interesting, successful career that makes a real difference to other people’s lives.
“Often older recruits join the profession after becoming disillusioned with seemingly more popular careers and wish they had done so years earlier.
“We want more young people to join the profession and experience all it has to offer.”
Saffron Brown, a second-year nursing student at the University of Northumbria, who went into training straight after school, agreed.
“Too many people think nursing is about working in hospital, but it is much more diverse than that. There are all sorts of jobs in the community you can do.”
Health minister Ann Keen admitted there was more that could be done over recruitment.
The Department of Health has recently set up a commission to look into the future of the profession. Part of the remit is recruitment.
Ms Keen said: “Having started my career as a nurse, I have seen first hand just how rewarding a career it can be.
“The range of opportunities available to qualified nursing staff is among the broadest of any profession.”