Nurses continued to make income gains in 2004, according to our fifth annual survey. How does your salary compare?


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THE RESULTS of our annual salary survey are in: According to more than 1,700 participants, salaries are rising. The overall average annual income reported by survey respondents in 2004 is $54,574, significantly higher than the average of $49,634 we reported in 2003. Besides being more than $4,900 more than last year, it's $10,000 above the average we reported in 2001, the year of our first survey.


More than 25% of 2004 survey respondents earn at least $65,000, a significant difference from what we found in 2003 (15%) and 2001 (8%). Another positive note is that a much larger percentage of women reported earning $75,000 or more in 2004 than in 2003 (11% versus 5%).


The average starting hourly base salary increased by 5% for RNs, rising from $18.49 in 2003 to $19.33 in 2004. The increase for LPN/LVNs was only 1%-from $13.45 in 2003 to $13.58 in 2004. (See Overall Average Base Salary per Hour.)


Across all position titles, average salaries ranged from $32,200 for staff LPN/LVNs to $49,600 for staff RNs to $72,400 for advanced practice nurses. Average annual income for 2004 survey respondents was higher than for 2003 participants for all position titles. (See Current Position and Average Annual Income.)


When we looked at average full-time annual income by type of unit, we found that on average, nurses earn the most per year in perianesthesia units ($59,400) and obstetrics/gynecology/nursery ($59,200). But nurses in outpatient/clinic settings made the biggest gains in 2004: Average annual income jumped from $44,100 to $57,700, an increase of 31%. Incomes were flat in emergency, psychiatric, oncology, and geriatric settings.


Most 2004 participants (72%) reported that their employer pays a shift differential, which is comparable to what 2003 salary survey participants told us. But in 2004, we found a significant increase in nurses reporting that their facility offers a shift differential for charge nurses.


Significantly more respondents received benefits for conference/travel and certification fees in 2004 compared with 2003 (50% versus 38% for conference and travel; 29% versus 23% for certification fees). When we looked a little closer at the 2004 data, we found that nurses with more than 15 years' experience report receiving more continuing-education reimbursement, conference and travel fees, certification fees, and flexible scheduling benefits than those with less experience. These nurses also received more reimbursement than nurses with more than 15 years' experience who responded to the 2003 survey.


The number of nurses working full-time increased significantly in 2004, and most respondents (63%) report being compensated on an hourly basis. But significantly more respondents are salaried in 2004 (37%) than in 2003 (26%) or 2001 (27%).


Although hiring bonuses are still offered by a few facilities, the decline was significant compared with 2003. Most of those that still offer it pay up to $2,000.


For LPN/LVNs, salaries are flat at best. The average annual income reported in 2004 was $32,400, versus $32,800 in 2003-a 1% decrease.


What's making a difference?

Why the gains (and a few losses) over the past year? Here are some trends we've identified from the 2004 survey data.


* Certification pays. Those with certification had an average full-time annual income that was almost $10,000 higher than those who weren't certified.

Table. Overall avera... - Click to enlarge in new windowTable. Overall average base salary per hour.
Table. Current posit... - Click to enlarge in new windowTable. Current position and average annual income.

* Education makes a difference-and it doesn't have to be an advanced nursing degree. The average income for a BSN responding to the 2004 survey was $56,900, almost $6,000 more per year on average than an associate degree (AD) respondent ($51,100). These salaries reflect a 9.5% increase over 2003 survey salaries for the BSN average and a 6% increase for the AD average. Those with an MSN earned $11,300 more on average than the average BSN respondent. The 2004 survey data reflected a 12% increase over the 2003 MSN average. (See Level of Education and Average Full-Time Annual Income.)


* Experience influences income. Those with more than 15 years' experience are earning an average of $19,000 more than those with experience totaling 5 years or less. Those with more than 15 years' experience are earning an average of almost $6,000 more per year than reported in 2003. We also found a significantly higher 2004 average annual income for those with more than 10 years' experience when compared with 2003 survey data: The average salaries were $57,100 for those with 11 to 15 years' experience (compared with $51,400 in 2003) and $59,500 for those with more than 15 years' experience (compared with $54,200 in 2003).


* But longevity in a position may not pay. The annual income gain is greatest for nurses holding their current position for 6 to 10 years: They enjoyed an average income increase of $7,300 over 2003 survey respondents. Nurses holding their positions for 5 years or less had an average increase of $5,200. By comparison, those who held their current position more than 15 years saw an increase of only $1,400 compared with their 2003 counterparts.


* Sex disparities persist. About 10% of 2004 survey respondents were men, compared with about 9% in 2003. Income differences between men and women persist across several variables. For example, the percentage increase for starting base hourly salary was 6% for male RNs compared with just 4% for female RNs. We also found differences in percentage salary increases for LPN/LVNs. The percentage increase for starting base hourly salary was 3% for men and 0.3% for women.

Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.
Table. Comparing ave... - Click to enlarge in new windowTable. Comparing average full-time annual income and base hourly rates by geographic location.


Among all respondents, the average full-time annual salaries for women ($53,900) and men ($59,800) were significantly higher than in 2003 ($49,300 and $52,600 respectively). However in 2004, the income difference between women and men is almost $6,000; in 2003, it was $3,300.


Some of the discrepancies may be explained by the fact that a greater percentage of men work in units that pay more, such as intensive care/critical care unit, where the average annual income is $58,400. Men also represented a higher percentage of nurse-managers/supervisors/administrators than women (34% versus 23%); the average income for this position in 2004 is $67,100.


And finally, in 2004, a higher percentage of male participants have a graduate or doctoral degree (20% versus 16% for women). The average full-time annual income for nurses with advanced degrees ranges from $68,200 to $72,400.

Table. Level of educ... - Click to enlarge in new windowTable. Level of education and average full-time annual income.

Location, location, location

Participants in half of the U.S. regions have a full-time average annual income that exceeds the overall average income ($54,600) for the 2004 survey. These higher average annual salaries range from $54,900 in the South Atlantic location to $64,800 in the Pacific region.


Overall, the dollar difference in participants' annual income between 2004 and 2003 ranges from zero in the Mid-Atlantic to $8,100 in the Mountain region; the East South Central and Mountain locations had the highest percentage income increase (17%). (See Comparing Average Full-Time Annual Income and Base Hourly Rates by Geographic Location.)


What it all means

This data offers you a foundation for exploring your potential earning power and provides directions for the road you travel to increase your income. Whether you embark on achieving certification, earning the next degree, or trying a new position in a different location, your choices affect your earning potential. Besides determining how the information you find here applies to your own situation, you'll need to do some additional homework; for example, you may want to talk with your nurse-manager or someone in human resources about the organization's differential pay, special benefits, and salary ranges for higher or specialty positions. Once you have a clear picture of the options open to you, you'll be better prepared to choose a path that will put you ahead in your career.


Eileen S. Robinson is a consultant in continuing education and clinical practice in Chadds Ford, Pa. Cheryl L. Mee is editor-in-chief of Nursing2004 and affiliate faculty for Immaculata (Pa.) University.


Who responded to this survey?

Here's a quick sketch of the average survey respondent (N=1,733):


43 years old


RN with a BSN




14 years in nursing and almost 7 years in her current position


works full-time


works in a commu-nity hospital medical/surgical unit or an urban CCU


lives in the East North Central or South Atlantic region.


A few fast facts[horizontal ellipsis]


* The overall average annual income increased by $4,900 from 2003 to 2004. Over the last three surveys, the increase has been $10,000.


* Part-time employees are earning on average $27/hour-significantly more than in 2003.


* RNs report the highest average starting base salary is in community/home health and subacute care settings at more than $20/hour.


* LPN/LVNs indicate the highest average starting base salary is in geriatric and psychiatric units (more than $14/hour).


* For unlicensed assistive personnel, the highest average starting base salary is in oncology and psychiatric units (more than $10/hour).