Editorial A Valuable Learning Experience

Colleges are getting creative when it comes to addressing the state’s labor shortages in the health care field; especially the ongoing problem in nursing.


With the nursing shortage in Massachusetts still hovering around 6.7{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association, and with several other specialized positions going begging, Western Mass. schools with health care programs are looking beyond capitalizing on those shortages by marketing existing programs.

Professionals are realizing that offering degrees in nursing, medical technology, medical assisting and other fields is not enough to fill the void; instead, a forward thinking, community-minded approach is being taken at several schools to provide training to health care professionals and students alike.

Some of these new programs, such as Holyoke Community College’s new nursing refresher course and UMass’ diversity in nursing program, made possible by a $1 million grant, may not be a quick fix, but they weren’t designed as such. Rather, the initiatives were designed with long-term goals in mind: to fill jobs, yes, but also to create a valuable employee base in Western Mass., and retain that base.

More and more, we are seeing effective collaborations between area colleges and health care facilities, working together to address a problem and also to capitalize on a need. The partnerships are not so surprising – higher education and health care are two of the most prominent and successful sectors of the region – but the creation of programs like HCC’s refresher course and UMass’ ‘Embracing the Challenge’ program, which is being used to bolster nursing jobs nation-wide, is as refreshing as it is effective.

HCC Dean of Workforce Development Keith Hensley said the primary goal of the school’s new nursing refresher course, which brings registered nurses who have been out of the field for over a year up to speed, was to address the persistent nursing shortage in the area by catering to a very specific population. Nurses who have been absent from the profession are noticing that now is the time to re-enter the profession, when hospitals and other facilities are offering competitive salaries to prospective employees in order to fill critical positions.

HCC saw a niche that could be filled, and jumped at the chance. The program doesn’t target a large group – Hensley expects the course will prepare about a dozen nurses for new jobs each time it is offered – but the class returns trained, licensed nurses to the profession and makes the students as marketable as any employee could possibly be. As Hensley said, these nurses will have no trouble finding jobs, and the facilities that hire them will have secured trained, skilled professionals that are eager and ready to work.

Similarly, the ‘Embracing the Challenge’ initiative at UMass also has the big picture in mind. It is designed to ensure an adequate supply of nurses for the future, but also address the need for greater diversity among that supply. For HCC, one solution was to focus on nurses who have maintained their licensing and who could ultimately augment the health care field with their knowledge and experience. At UMass, another answer to the need for nurses was to promote nursing as a viable job opportunity for young people, especially minorities. UMass nursing professor Jean Swinney said that when the nursing profession better mirrors the population it serves, several aspects of the field will be improved – from communication and support skills, to the care of multicultural patients. The program will also begin promoting nursing as early as high school, sending the message that the health care field is one with promise.

In short, programs such as those at HCC and UMass strive to do more than simply end a labor shortage; they look at the reasons why there is such a shortage, and what surrounding factors need to be addressed in order to curb a shallow employee pool in the future.

Colleges and universities nation-wide need to take a more proactive approach to solving the country’s labor problems, from addressing unemployment rates and training issues to tackling the gap between much of the American workforce and changing technology. Western Mass. is not immune to any of these challenges, but the work of area colleges to combat a major labor shortage in our backyard is proof that higher education is taking a renewed responsibility for the cities and towns they serve, and those communities are already seeing the results.