Health Care Industry Needs Workers

December 3, 2004
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Michigan faces a chronic shortage of workers for the growing health-care industry that, if left unaddressed, could “pose serious health threats” in the coming years, states a new report that chronicles the issue.

Health-care providers will need to fill more than 100,000 professional and technical positions over the next decade to keep up with a burgeoning demand for service as the population ages and requires more medical care, according to the report commissioned by the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Nursing alone will account for 40 percent of the shortage, although the need for health-care workers ranges across the industry, including high-paying professions such as pharmacists, medical imaging technicians, lab technologists, occupational and physical therapists, EMTs, paramedics and other positions. The shortages are most acute in rural areas of the state, the report stated.

“Shortages of some health-care occupations … pose serious threats to the future health and safety of Michigan residents,” the report states.

The report urges placing a greater emphasis on tracking the industry’s staffing needs and, through work-force development initiatives, luring and training more people in health-care professions.

The problem is one for which there exist “no quick fixes,” the report states, and requires a long-term commitment to work-force development in health care, where opportunities for expanding the employment base will likely persist for 20 years.

“The shortages are extreme,” said Jane Toot, dean of the Grand Valley State University College of Health Professions. “It’s daunting. It’s going to take a while.”

The state report, prepared by Public Policy Associates Inc. of Lansing, examines the issue from two perspectives: the shortage of staff in clinical settings and the potential to make health care an even greater economic force in Michigan that can replace high-paying jobs lost in the manufacturing sector.

Health care directly employs more than 445,000 people in Michigan, plus another 233,000 indirectly, generating $17.7 billion annually in wages and benefits. As of 2001, health-care workers earned an average of $34,300 a year.

Facing acute shortages in numerous health professions, the state needs to align training efforts with work-force trends, the report states.

“We will continue to ensure that our health-care work force continues to remain strong and vibrant to protect the health and safety of Michigan’s citizens,” Michigan Department of Community Health Director Janet Olszewski said. “Health care also is an important part of Michigan’s economy and we need to redouble our efforts to prepare Michigan workers to enter the health-care work force.”

In Kent County — the No. 3 county in Michigan for health-care employment — the industry employs more than 31,700 people who earn a collective $1.3 billion annually. Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health alone employs some 14,000 people in western Michigan.

Neighboring Ottawa County ranks 10th in the state, with more than 7,800 health-care-related jobs and $263 million a year in wages and benefits.

The economic aspects of the report play into the local economic-development strategy of building a health sciences sector in Grand Rapids that includes medical research, medical education and care providers.

Birgit Klohs, president of the economic development group The Right Place Inc., already sees a greater emphasis locally on work-force development in health care in order to maintain an adequate work force. Klohs cites Grand Valley State University’s recent development of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Professions as an example.

Economic developers are “keenly aware” of the need to put more emphasis on developing the health-care work force, as well as the role that health-care providers play in creating the health sciences economic cluster around Grand Rapids, she said.

“It’s becoming a key economic driver in the region and in the state. We are very in tune to how that’s playing out there and how the region has to play,” said Klohs, who also is a board trustee at Spectrum Health.

For example, GVSU’s College of Health Professions now works with middle schools and high schools in western Michigan to expose students to potential health-care careers at an early age, Toot said. For students who are interested, the college seeks to “alert them to what that profession requires” so they can begin preparing for the career while in high school, she said.

“They need to understand what’s involved and they need to understand early enough so they can develop the skills that they need,” Toot said.

The College of Health Professions is also doing more interdisciplinary training that gives students a better understanding of varying health professions, which can translate into better efficiency, productivity and collaboration in the clinical setting.

While colleges and schools can do more to lure people into health professions and train them, they do face their own shortage of qualified instructors, according to the state report. Faculty shortages are one of the “key impediments” to training, the report states.

Nursing schools in Michigan, having been successful in recruitment efforts to address a chronic nursing shortage, now have more applicants than they can handle, according to the state report. Nationwide, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in March reported an 8.6 percent faculty vacancy rate.

“We can’t accommodate all the students who want to be nurses,” said Phyllis Gendler, dean of GVSU’s Kirkhof School of Nursing.

Beyond faculty, both Gendler and Toot worry about “quick fixes” and the temptation to quickly expand capacity — which comes with its own cost implications — and usher people into training to fill the future health-care jobs, which ultimately could sacrifice quality. They say schools and colleges need to maintain high eligibility requirements and focus on long-term solutions in order to bring people into the profession who can become leaders and contribute to improving health care.

“You not only want to get people into the system, you want to fix the system,” Gendler said. “We need to look at the long-term fixes and where we are going in health care and what do people really need to know.”    

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