Nursing and EMT/paramedic shortages are nothing new, and the region’s local hospitals are not immune to the struggle.

However, as retirement numbers rise in these and other health care fields, and the number of students and new recruits dwindles, they have been implementing incentive programs to encourage individuals to consider and discover a rewarding career with plentiful opportunities for advancement in the hospital setting.

According to Julene Campion, vice president of Talent Management at Geisinger, the shortage is due to the perfect storm of a lack of supply of candidates as well as a demand for more.

“Like many health care systems in Pennsylvania, we are growing and adding new facilities, and new hospitals,” she said. “There’s a combination of our growth and the retirement of our current workforce.”

The aging workforce, especially of bedside nurses in Pennsylvania, she said, has even been referred to as the “silver tsunami.” Many of these skilled workers decided to retire early due to the pandemic. In addition, much of the in-patient nursing population has migrated toward outpatient positions and even telehealth roles.

“There are a lot more options for registered nurses now than in the past,” Campion said.

According to a recent release from Geisinger, there is a recruitment gap of about 300 registered nurses across the system each year. At the same time, the need for registered nurses continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections expects the workforce to grow from 3 million in 2019 to 3.3 million in 2029.

Kyle Bryan, manager of Recruitment for UPMC in North Central Pennsylvania, said many of those unsung heroes during the pandemic — those serving in frontline pre-hospital services such as EMTs and lab technicians — have been serving in those roles for 25 to 30 years, and many are expected to retire over the next five years. That number is higher than those currently receiving schooling to move into those same positions in the future.

“Nursing schools around here are usually filling up, and getting applicants,” he said. “It just might not be enough to meet the overall demand in the near future.”

According to Rachel V. Smith, vice president of People and Culture at Evangelical Community Hospital, open positions are just the nature of the health care industry as workers move in and out of their careers, or sometimes want to get experience somewhere else. However, she has been seeing a decrease in applicants, and believes part of that could be due to the pandemic. From lack of certainty to try something new, to the shifting of life responsibilities caused by the pandemic, many might not be in a position to enter the labor market, she said. In addition, there are likely individuals, who because of the nature of COVID-19, might not feel completely comfortable entering the health care industry right now.

Bryan said lab positions often get overlooked by those seeking STEM careers. In addition, he has seen a lack of individuals seeking to work in the respiratory therapy program — workers who were invaluable during the COVID pandemic. Interest in paramedic and EMT careers has also decreased.

These are all major positions, Bryan said, without which “It is very difficult for any facilities, especially the size of ours, to really function.”

Entry-level opportunities

For many, the idea of working at a hospital is limited to doctors and nurses, working directly with patients. Sometimes understanding and navigating the necessary training and being overwhelmed by what it would take to get the proper certification, is a barrier.

But local hospital officials urge potential candidates to think outside the box.

“We’re our own little community,” Bryan said of each of the system’s hospitals. “We have folks coming in to clean, do custodial work, environmental services, landscaping, HVAC, serving food — and everything in between.

“There are a lot of ways to start a position to get your foot in the door,” he said, “and grow yourself in whatever direction you want to go.”

Yet it’s been difficult finding people to fill those roles for a variety of reasons,” he said, including continuing unemployment benefits and a competitive market in which those who can offer the best rates and benefits usually wins.

“Competition in this area is really high,” said Logan Taylor, human resources manager-recruitment at Evangelical. “We’re being told that people are considering positions outside of health care, and they look at what any employer would be willing to offer and compare that to what we can offer as well.”

Despite that ongoing competition, Taylor said Evangelical has been able to keep their staffing at safe and effective levels, while still attracting talent. But the hospital is “receiving fewer applications than we historically have.”

When it comes to entry-level positions, “We’re competing with other health care organizations and all industries across the board,” said Campion, such as warehousing, manufacturing and retail.

When it comes to things like hospitality services, few often think immediately of a hospital, yet longtime and growing careers in foodservice and environmental services are readily available there.

In response to the competitive job market, Campion said Geisinger has raised their minimum wage to $15 for environmental service positions, understanding the importance of that role in infection control and fall prevention. Geisinger also offers full benefits from day one. As a result, they have seen an increase in hiring.

Education and training

Hospitals are working hard to get ahead of the dwindling application pools.

Bryan said UPMC continues to partner with local schools, not only at the collegiate level but also high school and even middle school students, to hopefully stir up interest in a future in the health care community. They seek opportunities as well to work with career fairs, veteran services, the PA Careerlink and other nonprofit organizations to connect with those seeking employment.

“We can work with them to help build out the skills, do on-the-job training,” Bryan said. “They have the ability to make a lifelong career out of the work that they do here.”

UPMC also seeks to break down the barriers that people might have, such as the cost of education or not knowing how to get into a certain health care field or how to advance on the career ladder.

“Part of our values here is to really foster and grow individuals how they would want to in their careers,” Bryan said.

In addition, from a monetary perspective, UPMC offers $6,000 in tuition assistance per academic year for the employee as well as for spouses and dependents. It also offers assistance in refinancing loans, internships, and clinical opportunities, as well as a wide range of great benefits and support for a healthy work-life balance through a well-being program.

Smith said Evangelical also works closely with local nursing and other institutions, allowing students to conduct their clinical rotations and to experience the atmosphere at Evangelical — which will hopefully bring them back there for a more permanent career. The hospital offers tuition assistance and scholarship programs, and plenty of opportunities to advance their careers. They plan to continue training programs for interested individuals.

Geisinger’s career center in Danville (and virtually) offers events where people can learn more about the different career opportunities there, as well.

“We are really interested in hiring quality candidates from all walks and all educational backgrounds and all experiences and cultures,” Campion said, adding that they don’t have to be worried about lack of experience. There are plenty of training opportunities, including a phlebotomy school, EMT apprenticeship, and scholarships.

With the inpatient nursing shortage, however, that remains one of their strongest focuses. Geisinger’s Nursing Scholars Program awards $40,000 in financial support with a five-year work commitment as an inpatient nurse. Their goal is to support 175 scholars per year. The program serves as an entry point health the health care profession for high school students and anyone else considering a career in nursing. Geisinger employees qualify for the program after one year of employment.

Geisinger also provides career coaching and development for military veterans.

A great place to work

For many in the health care industry, their position is more than just a job. They love what they do and the difference they make. Campion clarifies that even if someone wants to advance their career and make more money, that doesn’t mean they have to move into a leadership position and away from working alongside patients, if that is what they love to do.

“Progression doesn’t need to be a title change,” she said. “You can stay deep in what you love and are really great at, and keep developing in that particular area.” For example, a nursing assistant to a professional nursing assistant, or a nurse practitioner to a specialized nurse practitioner, or a pharmacy technician to a pharmacy leader.

Bryan said it is important to UPMC that employees “really feel connected to the community, and very purpose-driven. It’s very rewarding to work here, and once we bring on employees they see the difference they’re making, no matter what their role is.”

According to Smith, Evangelical is the region’s only five-star CMS hospital, and “We believe that speaks volumes to the care we provide to our patients. That can only happen when we have exceptional opportunities for our employees.”

“We present a very unique opportunity to give back to the community that you come from,” added Taylor. They love connecting with people from the central Susquehanna Valley who want to work there.

“That’s something that keeps me going every day,” he said, “and it keeps a lot of people going.”

So do the inherent qualities of the industry itself.

“If you ever work in health care, you’ll never be able to work anywhere else,” Campion said. “I truly believe that. There’s something very special about working in health care, probably more now than ever.”

Not everyone is a doctor or others serving on the front lines, she said, “but in some way, every role in the health care system touches that patient and that patient’s family…I can’t think of any other industry where someone might build a career where you can have that level of impact.”

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