Gen Z nurses commit to work at this hospital: How its CNO aims to keep them

When Jonna Jenkins, DNP, arrived at Hutchinson (Kan.) Regional Hospital in 2022, she was shocked to learn that the facility did not have a strong relationship with the town's community college.

Dr. Jenkins — the hospital's chief nursing officer — told Becker's she sought to change that. "How can we get nursing students to stop driving 50 miles to go to clinicals and come to my hospital for clinicals?"

She got to know the director of the community college's nursing program, and they began to formulate a plan. The hospital hosted an orientation for all 150 of the college's nursing students to begin clinicals there. Then, the two organizations worked to develop a full-ride scholarship program for nursing students. Those who receive the scholarship as first-years commit to a three-year residency at Hutchinson Regional after graduation; second-year recipients ink an 18-month work commitment. 

Although the scholarship is still in its infancy, interest has tripled since its conception. Seven students submitted applications in the program's first year; by its second, there were 21 applicants. Fifteen of them were awarded full rides. 

The program is not just for nurses; Hutchinson Regional also offers scholarship support for allied health professionals, including ultrasound technicians, medical laboratory scientists and technologists. By helping to alleviate the cost of education, the hospital is able to remove barriers to upskilling — and to healthcare careers as a whole, Dr. Jenkins said. The hospital begins introducing the idea to sixth grade students in the county, who attend a hospital tour during the school day. 

"Knowing that there's an opportunity to graduate without [debt], it does open up possibilities," Dr. Jenkins said. "We let [the sixth graders] know that we will help pay for their school, and provide scholarships for our own employees. We let them know that if what you want is to go to school and work in the hospital setting, we will help you to do that."

"If you know at a young age that you have a partner in your community who's willing to pay for your school, I think it will make a huge difference going into the future." 

One side effect of the new program is an influx of recent graduates, many of whom are members of Generation Z. While some bosses have expressed concerns about Gen Zers' capabilities, Dr. Jenkins is optimistic that the hospital can integrate them into a skilled multigenerational workforce — and retain them beyond their designated work commitment. The task depends on a mindset shift at the top, she said. 

"I challenged my nursing leadership team to really understand the generations and not make assumptions. I think it's really easy to say, 'Oh, this younger generation, they just don't have whatever it is.' But that's been going on forever," Dr. Jenkins said. "When the baby boomers were the younger generation, the greatest generation said, 'These baby boomers have no work ethic.' There's a difference between what is actually a generational change, and being young and learning life."

Dr. Jenkins aims to improve Gen Z nurses' comfort levels by leaning into mentorship — not just between experienced and new nurses, but between "the nurse who started last year and the brand new nurse." The latter pairing can relate to each other more easily, forming channels to express frustrations and hear success stories. 

She also hosts a regular "CNO forum," accounting for both day and night shifts to ensure everyone has direct access to the C-suite. The meeting is a way to share information and pose questions and concerns; each one includes a "stoplight report," where Dr. Jenkins shares updates on any action items from previous forums. It is important for all nurses to feel that they have a voice that is actually being heard, regardless of tenure, Dr. Jenkins said. For the same reason, she is intentional about speaking with newer nurses — not just leaders — when she rounds. 

The rapid growth of technology has no doubt deepened the rift between generations, Dr. Jenkins said: People born five years apart are experiencing the world in very different ways. She emphasizes the word "different" — not "good" or "bad," or "right" or "wrong" — and believes that understanding goes both ways. Gen Zers can admire certain traits about their Gen X counterparts, and vice versa: The teaching relationship is not always top-to-bottom. 

A nurse herself for 24 years, Dr. Jenkins said that Gen Zers have their work cut out for them — and it's up to their leaders to support them. 

"I can say with 100% certainty that the way the patient population interacts with nurses now is vastly different than when I first became a nurse. There was a different level of respect," Dr. Jenkins said. "We've had a lot of nurses who left the workforce, and so the patient ratios are higher than they were even five years ago." 

"We have to understand that the workload is actually heavier now for nurses who are just starting out."

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