Kirsten Newcomb worked in Virginia for 10 years, before her job took her somewhere with year-round sunshine and warm weather, with the added benefits of sunbathing sea turtles and lush jungle hiking: Hawaii.
In March 2020, the 35-year-old moved to the island of Maui after quitting her longtime job as a staff nurse to become a travel nurse. "I was motivated mainly by adventure," Newcomb says. "My favorite thing that I've done on Maui so far is I went paragliding off the side of Haleakala, which is the big volcano."
Travel nurses are registered nurses who work short-term contracts, often lasting about three months, at hospitals with staffing shortages around the country. Skyrocketing demand for travel nurses has raised awareness about the job's hardships as well as unique benefits: flexibility, globetrotting, and higher pay.
Because of the pandemic, demand for travel nurses soared about 82% in 2020, according to travel nurse agency Aya Healthcare. There were 12,817 travel nurse job openings on average each day in 2020, up from 7,054 in 2019, according to Aya Healthcare data. At the height of the pandemic in December 2020, there were about 30,000 openings, up from nearly 10,000 a year earlier.
Travel nurses can explore the country on short-term contracts and take time off between gigs, knowing they can likely secure a new job immediately. "Once I start looking for a new contract, it typically takes about a week," says Newcomb. "I can pretty much pick wherever I want to go next."
"It's almost a de-risked adventure," says April Hansen, an executive vice president at Aya Healthcare and former travel nurse. "This is where health care meets the gig economy."
"When you have an entire nation that is undergoing a pandemic, and the hero is the nurse … that brings a different level of awareness to just how valuable and how transportable our skill set is," Hansen says. "You can actually take your skills on the road and create your own career path."
Travel nurses are generally paid more than staff nurses, as incentive for uprooting their lives and moving, temporarily, to a new location. Hansen says travel nurses typically earn anywhere from $2,000/week to more than $5,000/week. That rate includes a tax-free stipend for food and housing. Average pay for registered nurses in the U.S. ranges from about $1,000/week to about $1,500/week, according to Ziprecruiter data.
When hospitals are overwhelmed by patients, they pay top dollar to hire travel nurses fast. Newcomb worked a crisis contract in Dallas, Texas in 2020 that helped her save $30,000 in the last year, but the experience was grueling and the pay didn't always feel worth it. "I think I saw more patients pass away than I had in the full 10 years previous in my whole nursing career," she says.
"I couldn't watch the news when I was visiting my parents over Christmas, because the news would show hospitals and I would immediately remember what that felt like. And I would immediately start crying."
Newcomb hasn't been able to save as much money living in Maui, largely because the cost of living is higher, but she's happier and the healthiest she's ever been.
During the pandemic, many nurses traveled to hospitals in need, out of a call to duty. In doing so, many have gotten to explore beautiful places. "I just knew if I was going to start travel nursing I wanted to go somewhere epic," Newcomb says.
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