Education is the best medicine to remedy the workforce deficit
Photo by Megan Haley
As rural communities struggle to find ways to alleviate impending workforce challenges caused by aging employees and stagnant youth populations, there appears to be a strategy that’s working for one specific industry in Western New England: healthcare.
Schools and healthcare companies are increasingly joining forces—and pooling resources—to build educational pathways that lead directly to local in-demand jobs.
One such partnership can be found just over the northern Berkshire border in Bennington, Vermont. This fall, Southern Vermont College (SVC) and Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC) launched a joint initiative that aims to solve multiple challenges for these institutions and the region more broadly.
“We faced a growing crisis in terms of our ability to find highly qualified healthcare employees,” explains Thomas Dee, SVHC’s President and CEO. “When you start doing the math, it gets sobering pretty quickly.”
Data contained in a report produced by the Vermont Talent Pipeline proved what many already know: Nurses are aging and healthcare facilities are growing. Very quickly, SVC and SVHC responded. The college moved its pre-existing Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program online and opened up tuition-free enrollment to SVHC nurses who work 50 percent or more for the company.
Not only is the RN-BSN program a retention tool for SVHC nurses, “there is strong evidence that the more baccalaureate nurses a healthcare facility has, the better the patient outcomes,” says Mary Botter, PhD, RN, Chair of the Nursing and Health Services Division at SVC. As part of the expanded partnership between the two institutions, she has become SVHC’s new Chief Nursing Officer, creating an important link between educational and professional policy.
Additionally, SVC students who complete the Pre-Licensure BSN program and pass their boards will be offered a job within Southwestern Vermont’s healthcare system and receive tuition reimbursement.
“A lot of kids in Bennington, especially high schoolers, may think that college is beyond their reach,” Dee says. “If we can make it easier for young people to see a career pathway in their hometown, it will be a real plus for the community.”
Nursing in the Berkshires, however, is a bit more complicated.
Berkshire Community College’s (BCC) nursing program recently found itself in hot water after failing to meet certain regulations. Nurses at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield spent nearly two years in arduous contract negotiations with Berkshire Health Systems (BHS). And, in November, residents across Massachusetts voted against a contentious ballot initiative that sought to regulate patient-to-nurse ratios.
Still, nursing remains a top-paying (and much needed) vocation in the region. The RN field is facing the highest level of employee shortage, and 33 new positions are expected to be added to the healthcare workforce by 2020, according to the Regional Workforce Skills Planning Initiative.
“Many people who work at BHS are on our nursing advisory board,” says Christina Wynn, Dean of Enrollment Management at BCC. “We use that as a means to educate ourselves about employment needs in the community.”
BHS, the county’s largest employer in the county’s largest sector, collaborates with BCC and other schools across the state, including Boston University. Eight third-year medical students and seven physician assistant students did their rotation at Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) last year.
“BMC is closer in size and function to the community and community teaching hospitals where almost 85 percent of America’s healthcare is delivered,” explains Marvin McMillen, MD, FACS, MACP, Chief of Perioperative Care at BMC. “We also believe that, by having students rotate out to BMC for multiple months, they will better appreciate the recreational, educational, cultural, and cost-of-living advantages of a healthcare career in Berkshire County.”
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in North Adams also is forging new kinds of relationships with BMC and other community partners. Last summer, it reconfigured and added programs to its biology department that come with new opportunities for internship and job placements. Students concentrating in medical technology, a recently added track within Health Sciences, complete three years of coursework in the classroom, then transition to BMC where they complete a year of clinical work. Last year, four of the six trainees who graduated from BMC’s School of Medical Technology were MCLA students.
“Once the students pass the national certification exam, they can begin working in the field immediately,” explains Anne Goodwin, PhD, Chair of the Biology Department at MCLA. And positions do open up. Two medical laboratory scientist jobs at BMC were posted just last month.
MCLA also offers a Community Health Education major, another biology program that does not require additional training. The mandatory three-credit internship, 135 hours on campus or at a local organization, exposes these students to viable job opportunities in the Berkshires.
While there are several other Berkshire County educational institutions that provide training and certifications in the healthcare field, including Charles H. McCann Technical School and Mildred Elley, bold collaborations are proving to be interesting and effective models for student retention.
“As a small, bachelors-granting public college, we can adjust for the demand in jobs, and rural healthcare is a growing issue,” underscores Gina Puc, MCLA’s Dean of Enrollment Management and Community Relations. “These are innovative models for other rural communities across the country.”
1,451 number of registered nurses
33 projected number of new registered nurse jobs by 2022
$79,654 median annual wage for a registered nurse
1,290 number of healthcare and social assistance establishments
12,829 number of current healthcare and social assistance employees
799 projected number of healthcare and social assistance jobs added by 2022
$67,166 median annual wage for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations
(all data here is for Berkshire County)