The world’s attention is on our health care workers right now, but the role of nurses has been steadily becoming more important in the last few decades. Originally cast in a subservient role to doctors, increased education and training has made the occupation very desirable.

Deriving from the Latin word “nutrire,” to suckle, nurses in antiquity had a single job: feed other women’s babies from their breasts. These wet nurses were deployed when a mother died or was otherwise unable to lactate for their child.

Over time, the role of nursing transformed into a more generalized form of care. Nurses kept things clean, attended to the emotional needs of patients and provided as-needed support to doctors and surgeons. Until the 19th century, most medical care was conducted in the home. However, as industrialization led to the growth of cities, a hospital system began to spring up where people would travel to be treated.

In the early 19th century, programs devoted to training nurses began to be established. The outbreak of the Civil War pressed thousands of nurses into service on both sides of the conflict, providing real-world proof of their effectiveness in patient care. After the end of hostilities, nurses were recognized as an essential part of modern medicine.

By the 1880s, many nursing schools had been established to funnel young women into careers taking care of the infirm. Soon enough, professional organizations were founded to ensure practicing nurses were trained and licensed. Originally brought into hospitals as cheap labor, by 1900, nurses were being allowed to operate stethoscopes, thermometers and other tools to gather information to aid doctors in their diagnoses.

The modern nurse performs those tasks and more. Depending on their level of education and experience, a nurse’s day can include administering medication, managing IV lines, keeping channels of communication open between patients and staff, and more . Much like doctors, there is also an increasing degree of specialization among nurses, with many opting to focus on certain diseases or patient demographics.

Of course, nursing is no longer considered an exclusively female occupation. The gender balance is still fairly skewed, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting just 9% of nurses as male. That number is steadily creeping upward.

The majority of nurses work in acute care environments like clinics and hospitals. However, the profession is also found in schools, at care facilities, in the home and in other places of business where immediate medical care is needed. In addition, alongside traditional patient care, nurses are also found in dozens of related specialties, including as nurse practitioners who focus on disease prevention and nurse informatics specialists who use computers to manage and process large amounts of patient data to improve the facility’s quality of care.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. With a job market that is rapidly shifting due to automation, the nursing profession is one that still requires a personal touch. An unemployment rate of just over 1% indicates that nearly every trained nurse who wants a job can get one.

Health care as a category is on the rise, as an aging population requires increased medical attention. Chronic conditions such as diabetes require lifelong management, which nurses excel at. In addition, nurses are aging out of the workplace faster than their replacements can be trained. This is creating a very open job market where nurses are competitive.

The American Nurses Association estimates that, by 2022, there will be more available registered nurse jobs than any other position, with more than half a million experienced RNs slated to retire.

Many nurses go into the field for job security. Nursing is an occupation that is not likely to be replaced by automation or outsourced labor any time soon. In addition, a growing population and increasing access to care indicates that the health care market will continue to expand in the foreseeable future.

Nursing salaries are extremely competitive as well, with the average starting salary for a registered nurse estimated at $75,510. Of course, that varies by state and other factors. More specialized and experienced nurses can expect to earn more.

Nursing is also an occupation that is extremely location flexible. Health care services are essential, and it’s rare to find a city or town that doesn’t have a clinic, nursing home, school or hospital that employs nurses. If you’re not looking for long-term commitments, the travel nurse industry offers the opportunity to see the world and make an increased salary. New nurses looking to gain experience and work in different clinical venues often spend some time in travel nursing before settling down.

Most importantly, nursing is an occupation that is intrinsically rewarding. Every day, you’ll make decisions that will help people live longer, healthier lives. Working in health care can be challenging, but it’s also important. As the most frequent point of contact with patients, nurses use their skills to guide them through their treatment and recovery.

To become a registered nurse, there are three paths — you can obtain an associate degree, graduate from a diploma program or get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. Many of the fastest-growing specializations within the nursing industry, such as clinical nurse, nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist, require a BSN. This is typically a four-year program that goes deeper into the nuts and bolts of medical science.

Having a BSN definitely gives applicants a leg up in the job market. The nonprofit Institute of Medicine launched a program in 2010 to recommend that 80% of practicing nurses have their BSN by this year, arguing that the increasing complexity of care demanded more extensive education.

Instead of frontloading their entire training before entering the workforce, some nurses opt to continue their education even after becoming registered. Programs like the one from East Central University allow working nurses to obtain their BSN degree online in their free time, opening up the possibility to transition into more specialized fields with higher compensation.