You are currently viewing Plagued by a labor shortage, Colorado will offer tuition-free training to students in all healthcare jobs

Plagued by a labor shortage, Colorado will offer tuition-free training to students in all healthcare jobs

A state effort to ease Colorado’s dire healthcare worker shortage will provide tuition-free training to several thousand students, giving hospitals and clinics a much-needed boost.

The Care Forward Colorado program will invest $26 million in federal COVID stimulus funds into the program for two years, guaranteeing free tuition for students wishing to become certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, technicians in phlebotomy, medical assistants or dental assistants.

The program, created by legislation backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the last legislative session and signed into law by Governor Jared Polis, has the potential to reach more than 4,000 students. Still, that’s a long way from closing the workforce gaps in hospitals and healthcare systems: Colorado will have an estimated shortfall of about 54,000 workers in low-wage healthcare jobs by 2026, according to a 2021 report from Mercer, a human resources consulting firm. But the new program is one way the state is working to fill the labor gap, especially in rural areas.

Polis announced the program Wednesday at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton amid students pursuing health fields. He cited the need to bolster the workforce pipeline after many employees, exhausted by the pandemic, gave up their jobs.

“There is upward mobility in these careers as well as a stable life,” Polis said. “We will only increase our health care needs as our population ages, and we want to make sure we have the caregivers and people with the right training to take care of everyone.”

The program will be available at 19 community colleges and technical colleges in the region, “so it covers from corner to corner of the state,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Free training will be available for students starting this fall until 2024.

One of these schools is Trinidad State College, which has campuses in Trinidad and Alamosa.

The college trains students as nurse aides, dental assistants, physician assistants, and paramedics. The Care Forward Colorado program will position the college to expand its healthcare programs and better meet the needs of communities in Las Animas and Huerfano counties and the San Luis Valley, college president Rhonda Epper said.

As a member of the board of directors of Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Epper knows firsthand how much local hospitals suffer for qualified personnel, such as orderlies and physician assistants.

“The number of job openings in all of these positions is increasing, and our healthcare providers in our communities are struggling to fill these positions,” Epper said. “So we try to meet the workforce needs and we produce as many professionals as possible, but we are limited by the number of students who come to us and then by the capacity of our own workforce. to train students.

She said her college is fortunate to be fully staffed in its healthcare programs, but other colleges across the state are struggling to find faculty.

Berg Administration Building of Trinidad State College. The school opened in 1925 and was Colorado’s first junior college. (Mike Sweeney, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Trinidad State College will have the capacity to handle a surge of new students in the event that there are more enrollments to take advantage of the new state curriculum. The school’s dental assisting program, for example, can accommodate a maximum of 12 students, but is willing to double its enrollment by hosting an evening cohort if needed, Epper said.

Community colleges are among the most nimble in staffing their programs because they can adjust the number of adjunct instructors they hire based on their enrollments, she noted.

But as education grapples with its own labor shortages, some community colleges may not be ready for many more students.

“It’s a challenge to fill faculty positions in any of these areas, especially nursing,” Epper said.

Provide better care with workers serving their own communities

The program, which could save students hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on their field, will also allow medical clinics that care for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents to tap into a new pool of trained professionals so they struggle to overcome staffing shortages.

The Colorado Safety Net Collaborative has about 50 clinics across Colorado that serve people who are uninsured or eligible for Medicaid — the government insurance program for people with low income or disability — with more than 60% of the clinic’s patients being people of color. Some clinics offer full service while others only offer dental or medical services. Most of the collaboration’s clinics are located along the Interstate 25 corridor and at least seven are located on the western slope.

Many clinics closed during the pandemic and lost staff who could not afford to wait to resume their work, said chief consultant Phyllis Albritton.

Now that clinics have reopened, they lack qualified staff capable of fulfilling critical roles, including medical assistants and dental assistants. Staffing shortages have meant that clinics simply cannot see as many people on a day-to-day basis, including both clinics that accept walk-in patients and those where appointments are required, a said Albritton. She referred to a clinic in Littleton which had to reduce the number of people it could treat because it did not have enough staff, especially medical assistants.

“As they are able to fill these staffing shortages, they can increase the number of visits they can have each day,” she said.

The Care Forward Colorado program is a way for students to connect with these in-demand jobs and get free training to “serve the community they live in,” Albritton said.

“Care is best when it’s given by people you feel comfortable with, and that’s an underappreciated part of healthcare that makes a huge difference to people getting good care. quality versus poor quality care,” she said, noting that clinics can work with community colleges to find people who are passionate about health care and bring them into the training pipeline.

George Villalobos, who lives in Littleton, is one of those students who wants to give back to the place he knows as his home.

Villalobos is in his first week of college at Arapahoe Community College where he is studying to become an EMT and said he was “beyond thrilled” to save on tuition through the Care Forward Colorado program. He said he could divert the money he would have used for school to fix his car and take his family to dinner.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis is welcoming students pursuing careers in healthcare after announcing on Wednesday the launch of a statewide program that will make training free for students who want to access to entry-level medical positions, including pharmacy technicians and emergency medical technicians. Polis announced the Care Forward Colorado program at a press conference at Arapahoe Community College. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“This is a direct investment in my future and the future of healthcare workers like me,” Villalobos said Wednesday during the governor’s press conference.

The program will appeal to students who have just graduated from high school as well as others who want to change careers later in life or return to school after raising their families, Polis said.

Paccione of the state Department of Higher Education sees the program as a promising path for students who have become “confused about their future” during the pandemic and may have dropped out of school because they don’t. didn’t want to pay for distance education or who decided to take a break known as a gap year.

She hopes the statewide program will take students to the first rung of their careers — one that will lead them to a stable, long-term livelihood.

“For me, that’s what’s most important,” Paccione said. “I don’t just want to create jobs for people. It’s important, but what I want is also to have a line of sight towards a career.

Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, echoed that vision as community colleges and health care facilities across the state attempt to rebound from recent downturns.

“We know we’ve lost students during the pandemic,” Garcia said. “It was a significant loss for us and for them, and our healthcare organizations certainly lost a lot of workers at a time when we as a state couldn’t afford to lose those workers. We want to create opportunities for more students to come into our system at no cost and earn some of these short-term certificates and degrees that will allow them to become healthcare professionals and then build on those credentials at future so that they can progress. their career and their purchasing power.

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