Grant will help care workers find affordable training

REGION – They spend their days caring for individuals for whom health is a daily challenge or who require some assistance meeting their daily needs-nursing home residents, adult foster care homes, homebound seniors and persons with disabilities.

Now, with the help of a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor High Growth Job Training Initiative, these direct care workers have access to training opportunities that are affordable, local and help them give patients high quality care.

The Healthcare Regional Skills Alliance (RSA) of Northwest Michigan, operated by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCOG), was one of just six grant recipients in the country, and the money will help combat a declining trained direct care workforce that is facing a growing population of need.

"Its purpose is to create a comprehensive, standardized direct care worker career pathway," said Jean Peters, Healthcare RSA coordinator. The RSA formed in 2004 to address workforce needs in the industry, but training opportunities have been limited or non-existent.

Direct care providers work in a variety of environments, including private homes, assisted living facilities, community living centers and hospice.

A survey of employers engaged in the care of these populations a couple years ago revealed a very clear need-training. Employers called for a system that would help recruit people with the right aptitude by providing educational opportunities to enter the field and then advance through levels of training, and, in turn, help employers retain highly-skilled employees.

The "comprehensive career pathway" offers training for home health aides and certified nurse aides, as well as programs for licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, explained Peters. Key to this pathway is a "standardization" which requires the collaboration of all the training partners, she added.

The RSA's training partners include the Community Services Network of Michigan, private and community colleges, hospitals, the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan, and Michigan Works, among others.

According to NWMCOG, the healthcare industry is the fastest growing industry and largest job provider in this region, overtaking construction jobs, which previously led the employment market.

"In the next three years, northwest Michigan can expect 1,332 new jobs in the healthcare and social assistance industry, as compared to 1,209 new jobs in construction," said Mathias McCauley, associate director for regional planning at NWMCOG.

According to a recent demographics report produced by Economic Modeling Specialists for NWMCOG, there will be a 22 percent increase in people 85 years and older living in the region by 2011. At that age, Peters said, there is a "very intense need" for services.

"There is a growing need for well-qualified people to work in all kinds of long-term care facilities, and this program will definitely help us fill a growing gap between demand and supply," said Elaine Wood, deputy director at NWMCOG.

Peters said the biggest need in this region right now is caring for people struggling with dementia, a condition that can severely impact one's memory, judgment and other intellectual functions, as well as personality. According to Peters, between the ages of 75 to 85 there is a 30 percent chance of people developing dementia. After 85 years of age, half of that population has a chance of a dementia diagnosis.

Over the next three years, Peters anticipates the Healthcare RSA will have trained 460 new workers, plus the 180 already working in the region, as a result of this grant.

"We intend to provide these trainings at little or no cost to direct care workers," Wood said. "By keeping the costs low and offering the trainings throughout the region, we hope to make the trainings more accessible to employers and to individuals."

A complete listing of upcoming trainings is available at the Healthcare Regional Skills Alliance of Northwest Michigan website, www.nwm.cog/healthcarersa.asp.