Partnership promotes Alaska health care jobs

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2001

Good jobs are going begging on the Kenai Peninsula and around Alaska.

The burgeoning health care industry struggles to find skilled specialists such as nurses, physicians, radiologists, ultrasound technicians, lab workers and mental health counselors.

Alaska traditionally has offered little in-state medical training and relied on recruiting professionals from elsewhere. Trends suggest depending on outsiders will become more difficult in the coming years.

But now Alaskans are doing something about the problem.

The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association set up a health care careers consortium last year. Recognizing the need for a regional initiative as well, participants set up a Kenai Peninsula Health Care and Education Consortium, too.

Dennis Murray, administrator of the Heritage Place assisted-living home in Soldotna, is the chair of the peninsula group and a member of the statewide task force.

He said he and colleagues at Central Peninsula General Hospital have had trouble filling vacancies.

"We know there are not qualified people looking for jobs," he said.

He cited a state survey in January that counted 272 vacant jobs for nurses in Alaska.

Health care needs are growing. At the same time, not enough people are entering skilled medical fields. The problem is particularly acute in nursing, where the work force is aging and the nation is not educating enough new ones, he said.

"We are trying through these consortiums to bring awareness and create the partnerships to respond to those needs," he said.

The ASHNHA obtained a grant through the Alaska Department of Labor and set up the statewide working group, which began meeting in June 2000.

The group's purpose is to identify gaps in current education and bring together groups to make needed changes in educating the work force. The priority is on the need for more nurses.

The effort is modeled on a parallel project partnering the state's process industries with Alaska educational institutions to train replacements for aging workers in the petrochemical industries.

Murray admitted that health care has been slower to tackle the problem.

"Health care never figured out they should be on the same page until the last year," he said.

"We're kind of late to the party. But now that we're here -- pay attention."

Statewide, the industry is working with the University of Alaska system to enhance Alaskans' access to nursing schools. The University of Alaska Anchorage School of Nursing has started satellite programs in Kodiak and Fairbanks.

The state also is partnering with Weber State University in Utah, which plans to offer licensed practical nursing courses at as many as five rural Alaska sites beginning this fall.

The peninsula group began meeting in August.

"Its intention is to look at the health care work force development needs and work with the various communities," Murray said.

The participants are representatives of the health care industry (including hospitals, health service organizations, Public Health and Central Peninsula Counseling Services) and of the education sector (including Kenai Peninsula College, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District).

"It is not a closed shop. It is whoever is interested," Murray said.

The group has been busy in its short existence, coordinating ongoing efforts and fostering new ones. Its projects include:

n Bringing the Weber State nursing program to the KPC campus in Soldotna.

"We are just in the process of getting the student selection done," he said. "It is scheduled to start (next semester) if everything falls into place."

The program is still taking applicants, he added.

n Developing a new model of the certified nursing assistant program.

The previous program, a partnership between CPGH and Soldotna High School, suffered from cutbacks in the public schools. But the revamped program, working out of the college, can serve older students and more high schools.

n Looking into developing courses for radiology and ultrasound technicians.

The courses may be available in Alaska for the first time this fall in Anchorage. Plans are to set up distance learning courses for people in other areas.

n Working with the Ben Evelend, the vocational education specialist at the school district, on developing health care components of the Career Pathways program in the public schools.

n Working with the Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts on career exploration programs relating to health care.

Murray cited a program under way for emergency medicine involving Explorer Scouts and Central Emergency Services. The extracurricular programs are promising because scouting organizations have experience delivering quality enrichment programs for youth.

"You don't have to start from scratch," he said.

The peninsula consortium is looking at other, longer-term needs.

Central Peninsula Counseling Services has expressed interest in getting more training for mental health specialists such as social workers and counselors in Alaska. Another job category yet to be addressed is medical laboratory technicians.

The consortium represent new attitudes toward Alaska's work force, Murray said.

The members want Alaskans to get the training they need without leaving the state for higher education. Previous programs that paid Alaskans to attend professional school elsewhere often ended up exporting both state dollars and talented people.

"Typically, they do not come back," he said.

The members also are carrying partnerships between schools and industry to a new level of cooperation.

"I think that is an encouraging trend," Murray said.

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