A workforce shortage in the nursing profession is threatening the vitality of the nation's health care system.

With a growing number of nurses heading for retirement, and a drop in the number of nursing students, practitioners may be leaving behind empty shoes with no one qualified to fill them.

Nowhere is the crisis more evident than in Arkansas.

"Beds in ICU have been closed. There are some hospitals that are unable to perform surgery at certain times. They do not have the staff," Dr. Barbara Williams of the University of Central Arkansas said.

The Razorback State already has a need for 4,000 nurses at a time when fewer and fewer students are choosing nursing as a profession.

"They can make a lot more money in just about any other job," David Varnell, a registered nurse, said.

But according to the dean of Nursing at the University of Arkansas Medical School, Dr. Linda Hodges, it's not just about the money. In the past, she says, young women were encouraged to go into nursing. Now they are encouraged to pursue more prestigious careers in law and medicine, she said.

"So these bright young women who would have come into nursing 15, 20, 30 years ago are now choosing another profession," Hodges said.

"They are saying no to nursing because nursing continues to have, I think, less respect ... than most health care providers," she said.

Federal lawmakers are proposing more scholarship money to attract nursing students, while state lawmakers are calling for further studies of the crisis.

But even if the problem of attracting new nursing students is overcome, another obstacle remains: there are not enough nurses willing to teach the profession.

"[Nurses] are making 15, up to as much as $50,000 more a year than what they can make as an educator," Williams said.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.