Minnesota has recruited nearly 1,300 certified nursing assistants over the past few months through a new tuition-free training initiative, and state leaders hope to enroll thousands more in the coming years.

The state launched the certified nursing assistant (CNA) training program in January to help ease staffing shortages in long-term care facilities and veterans homes during the pandemic. Gov. Tim Walz had set a goal of recruiting 1,000 new nursing assistants by Jan. 31, but it took until this month for the state program to reach that goal.

Funded by $3.4 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, the state program covers the cost of students' tuition, textbooks, uniforms and certification exams.

"We're going to make the case that this needs to be the norm moving forward," Walz said Tuesday during a visit to St. Paul College, where he announced the recruitment milestone.

The governor wants the state to invest $6.7 million annually to continue the program and cover training costs for 3,000 new CNAs annually.

Nursing assistants are the fifth-highest in-demand job in Minnesota and earn an annual median wage of about $37,300, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

State leaders have said not enough students are pursuing a CNA credential to meet current demand.

In late 2021, Walz activated 400 National Guard members to serve as emergency temporary nursing assistants in long-term care facilities that were facing dire staffing shortages.

The new program, the governor said, is building a recruitment pipeline that could help prevent staffing shortages from occurring during future COVID-19 case surges.

"This issue around long-term care facilities will not be the same crisis situation that we saw, and that gives us a hand up on things," Walz said.

Of the 1,278 Minnesotans who benefited from the tuition-free training program, 940 enrolled in courses offered by state colleges or a private training provider. The rest were high school students who were trained through their school districts and had their certification exam costs covered by the state.

"People stepped up," Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said. "They really want to have a career where they can make a difference."

The state Department of Education will soon announce that 10 public school districts will each be awarded $15,000 grants to expand their CNA training programs or create new ones, Olson said.

Olson called the original Jan. 31 recruitment goal "incredibly aggressive." He said it was difficult to meet because it took educators time to pivot their trainings to a more accelerated format.

Walz said he believes the state's nursing assistant training program could be copied for other high-demand professions, such as law enforcement and first responders.

"We know we have to figure out creative ways to bring folks … into these professions," he said.