Building a New Health Care Workforce

by David Gorn

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Legislators called attention to what they called acute shortages of health care workers in the Central Valley during an Assembly hearing last week in Bakersfield.

Shortages are likely to increase over the next few years for a variety of reasons, according to Assembly member and workforce committee chair Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield).

"Here in the Central Valley, we have a great need [for health care providers]," Salas said at Thursday's legislative hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on Workforce and Vocational Development in California which focused only on health care workers.

"We looked at the doctor/patient ratio particularly," Salas said, "and we thought, 'How can we get more providers into the Valley?' … We're going to have a hard time filling that need."

The key is to train existing health care professionals to fill some jobs and to strengthen health care education to fill all kinds of health-related jobs, Salas said.

"Getting students to fill those needs will not only make a tremendous difference to health care for people, but for the quality of life here," Salas said. "That's one message I want to share with everyone here: There are jobs out there. We just have to figure out the best way to get to those jobs."

That's where the California Workforce Investment Board comes in, said Moreen Lane, a senior policy specialist for CWIB. She said effective policy changes aren't just edicts from Sacramento.

"While we're doing a lot of things at the statewide level, what's really important in health care and in the health care workforce is the work being done at the regional level," Lane said. "Health care here in Bakersfield is very different from health care in San Diego, or in San Francisco."

Education efforts in underserved areas need to focus on people growing up in those areas, said Cindy Collier, Dean of Nursing and Allied Health at Bakersfield College.

"In Kern County we're unique in that we're a little isolated," Collier said. "So I am a firm believer that we have to grow our own. What we need to look at is: How can we offer workforce development to our residents, to the people who live here?"

According to Collier, that includes increasing education efforts in middle school and high school, so that local children can handle a nursing education, for instance, at the community college level.

The need for providers and allied health workers has been well-documented, Lane said, and will increase with the aging of the state's population and the coverage increases from the Affordable Care Act.

"Right now we have a sector -- health care -- which even in the economic downturn was continuing to grow," Lane said. "And now we're adding up to 5.9 million more people in California who will have access to health care coverage. You can imagine what this means for new jobs and new opportunities."

Add to that, she said, the impending retirement of a large section of the provider network and you're looking at a huge challenge for California and a huge potential boon to its workers.

"The fastest-growing sector within health care is allied health," Lane said. She said a short-hand definition of allied health means anyone in health care who's not a doctor or nurse.

"We see a 63% increase in the allied health care workforce need between 2010 and 2030," Lane said.


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