Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Donna Phillips of Brooklyn Center found her calling when she had to put her life on pause to tend to her sick and elderly dad.
But turning that newfound passion for caregiving, one discovered in midlife, into a career may not have happened without the help of an innovative but temporary Minnesota program to boost the number of nursing assistants in the state.
Nursing assistants are the backbone of long-term care and other specialty centers — monitoring vital signs and helping patients with daily needs, such as bathing, grooming and eating. But thousands of job vacancies across the state have left providers scrambling for staff or, in some cases, turning away families who need their services.
The state program, dubbed the Next Generation Nursing Assistant initiative, offers a targeted and timely solution. It breaks down a daunting entry barrier to a nursing assistant career — the cost of training and the professional exam.
There's still time for Minnesotans to take advantage of this unusual opportunity for all-expenses-paid training. In addition, legislators should consider extending it beyond its current early 2023 expiration to continue to recruit workers to fill this critical labor shortage.
For Phillips, 48, the training played a pivotal role in furthering her education and led to a job she loves at Crescent Cove Respite & Hospice Home for Kids in Brooklyn Center.
"I just want people to know about this program," Phillips said. "It was life-changing for me at this point in my life. I hope other people understand that and get the opportunity to do this and go on to serve, to help."
Gov. Tim Walz's administration launched the training program last December with $3.4 million in federal COVID relief funds. It appears to be a pioneer nationwide, with other states calling administrators and educators here for details.
In September, Walz announced a second round of funding to extend the program, this time tapping $2.4 million in state COVID-19 management appropriation dollars. The program will sunset in February without further action.
So far, 1,392 people have gone through training, exceeding the initial goal of 1,000 participants. While it's unclear how many are employed in the profession, more than 1,200 have gone on to take the professional examination after completing coursework.
That's laudable, but with thousands of nursing assistant job openings remaining across the state, clearly the work remains unfinished. An extension is the sensible course of action, one that could help address the broader health care workforce shortage, because a nursing assistant job can be a stepping stone to other caregiving careers.
For example, Amanda Worner, who graduated from high school last spring and lives near the small town of Henning, Minn., completed the program and is now working at PioneerCare in Fergus Falls. Her goal: to become a registered nurse. The nursing assistant job will help her pay for her education while providing valuable hands-on experience.
She urges others to sign up to get a jump-start on a health care career, too. Everything was covered, she said, including the cost of the professional exam, which generally runs about $250. Like Phillips, she believes she's found her calling.
"I just love sitting down with the residents and hearing their stories. I love pampering them and lotioning them up and making them all pretty,'' Worner said.
Enrollees in the program go through a minimum of 75 hours of coursework. Classes are typically offered through community and technical colleges around the state, making this opportunity convenient for Minnesotans in the metro and those who live far outside it. The average nursing assistant's base hourly pay in Minnesota is $19.29, according to Indeed.com.
Flattening financial barriers will help entice people to enter this noble profession. Covering the exam fee is especially smart. That sum might be daunting for many. Details like this reflect the thoughtful collaboration of state agencies, higher education institutions, private training centers and long-term care providers who have made this program a reality.
Courses are still available for interested Minnesotans, and there's time to complete the training before the program's current expiration in early 2023. For more information, go to tinyurl.com/NextGenNA.