The Alaska Primary Care Association recently received $9.7 million through the US Economic Development Administration’s Good Jobs Challenge Grant. The funds will be used to increase the number of Alaskans entering the health care field, with a particular focus on apprenticeships.
Jared Kosin is CEO of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association. He explains what this grant means for Alaska’s health care industry and how advocates are changing the approach to address long-standing labor shortages.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jared Kosin: The workforce issue, if you will, has been a health care issue for years. And now with the pandemic, now that we’re kind of coming out of it, the problem has gotten worse. And we know that, we commissioned a study from the association last year, and we are going to do it again this year. But at the end of the day, in our healthcare workforce in Alaska, there’s a huge hole. Each year, we have more than 63,000 vacancies across the industry. More than 14 hundred of them are for registered nurses only.
So we have this huge labor hole that exists, and it’s probably worse. The problem is that, both in the health sector and in any sector, you post jobs, but no one applies. Where has everyone gone? So we’re in a situation where we can no longer rely on people responding to our messages and coming to work at our facilities, so you kind of have to change your thinking. How do we take our existing workforce, certainly support them through burnout and all the challenges they’ve had, but how do we train them for positions rather than looking and bringing people ? This is where this concept of learning really comes into play.
Michael Fanelli: So what do you think are the biggest hurdles to convincing Alaskans to become healthcare professionals? And how would that money perhaps seek to mitigate them?
JK: There are many obstacles. I mean, definitely, the post-pandemic world – if you could call it that, I know we’re still in it, and it’s going to be a part of our lives for a long time – but there’s a lot of toxicity to that. Health care workers have seen a lot that others would never want to see. And that both got political and affected people’s direct lives when they were coming home from shifts, so I think one of the challenges or obstacles that we have is, well, why would I get into health care? I just saw what they went through. Both publicly and we hear the stories privately – why should I choose this profession?
And so we need to do a better job, from a health care perspective, of engaging people at a much younger age and explaining what health is. You know, we don’t need those A+ students and those people who all their lives knew they were going to be a doctor. We need those people who may not know what they want to do and want to explore a professional field. Healthcare is ripe for it because once you get in, you can go anywhere with it.
FM: OK. So, other than this grant, what else does the health industry in Alaska need to get to where it needs to be?
JK: You know, we are in a much better situation than a year ago now. A year ago, we were preparing for Delta’s surge. And I would say that was the worst part of the pandemic for us. And that’s my personal opinion. But a year later, what do we really need? I think an understanding that things fluctuate, we are always busy. Fortunately, it’s not [because of] COVID, COVID has an impact [us] when he knocks out staff, but I would say probably behavioral health.
Behavioral health is something we all know, in the last couple of years it’s probably taken a big hit. People have experienced trauma. And now that things have sort of calmed down, I think that’s showing up more. What we’re going through is a broken continuum, where we see people in crisis, who need to be matched with counsellors, people trained in behavioral health therapy, but there aren’t any out there. So they end up going to the emergency department of a hospital and eventually wait to be placed in an inpatient psychiatric bed. It’s bad care. And I would say that’s a big priority for us, even though we’re in hospitals and nursing homes. If a piece of the continuum is extremely deficient, if it is broken, we all feel it. So we need to do our part when it comes to behavioral health.