by Dwain Hebda
Like many states, Arkansas is in the grip of a labor crisis and nowhere is the state feeling the pinch more than in health care.
Health care occupations are projected to grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026, adding about 2.4 million new jobs, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, the number of health care workers available to fill these positions falls short of demand by millions. Part of the reason for this widening gap is the aging Baby Boomers, who are not only creating a lot of demand for health care, but are sweeping millions of current doctors, nurses and other practitioners into retirement.
By far the biggest job deficit lies in the nursing field. Next year, Forbes predicted, the United States will suffer a shortfall of 154,000 nurses and a staggering half-million vacant nursing jobs within a decade.
Karen Blue, chair of the associate of applied science degree in nursing program at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro says this isn’t a new headline.
“Nurses are getting older; the average age of a nurse right now is about 51 years of age,” Blue says. “The other factor is, we have a hard time educating nurses because we don’t have enough qualified faculty to teach the student population that’s needed to offset the shortage.”
Arkansas’ nursing schools train a bumper crop of nurses every year, and they have a long waiting list of prospective students for each class. Most nursing students have a job immediately upon graduation, and many schools boast 100 percent employment frequently. The average starting salary in Arkansas, according to Nurse Salary Guide, is $59,000.
In 2016, Baptist Health College in Little Rock began a five-year mission to boost enrollment in the nursing program by 25 percent, says Chancellor Judy Pile.
“We could see the shortage and the openings and vacancies at the hospital setting, so we’ve been working on increasing enrollment for several years now,” Pile says.
“There are opportunities in nursing from the day they graduate and enter the profession with good salaries, very good benefits and lots of possibilities for a diverse career over several years, and it’s in demand anywhere you go.”
Within nursing lies a wide range of specialties and variables in terms of work environment, hours and patients. Some specialties require years of additional schooling but offer accelerated pay and benefits. One such specialty is a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).
Even at an estimated average salary of $170,000, CNRAs are considered a bargain by many health care providers.
“CRNAs are very cost-effective,” Black says. “Take a small rural area like Pocahontas; the majority of the time that hospital only has a CRNA on staff to do all the anesthesia and is paying that CRNA much less than they would pay a physician anesthesiologist. Even in the bigger cities where you see an anesthesia care team model of anesthesiologists and CRNAs, nine times out of 10 the person that’s actually administering anesthesia is a CRNA.”
ALLIED HEALTH PROFESSIONS
Allied health professions represent a myriad of roles that provide critical components to a patient’s overall medical care. Among those professionals most in demand, competition is fierce, resulting in impressive salaries, perks and even signing bonuses.
Janice Ivers, dean of nursing and health sciences at National Park College in Hot Springs, says radiological technologist, medical laboratory technologist and respiratory therapist are particularly hot commodities, in part because only a handful can be educated in each class.
“We can certainly teach 100 students in a classroom, but you can’t do that in the clinical setting,” Ivers says. “At the same time, we have an increased need for multi-disciplined health care from nursing to laboratory people. It’s a very dynamic process, and depending on where you are in the state those roles kind of crossover in a lot of places.”
Such professions generally take four years of education, but upon earning a two-year associate degree, students can get a license and land a job while completing their education. This is a path commonly followed, Ivers says, and the same path for another critical profession, emergency medical technician/paramedic.
“You have to have an EMT license before you can be a paramedic,” she says. “They do their EMT certification and get their license and then they become paramedics, leaving that EMT spot vacant. So that is another need; we’re in constant turnover there.”
To understand just how high the demand is for occupational therapists, consider that five years ago there was just one collegiate training program in Arkansas. Since then, the number has grown to four doctorate-level programs.
“Yesterday, I was in a focus group talking about the aging worker and aging farmers and what are we doing to help them avoid work-related injuries as they age,” says Christie Wright, chair of occupational therapy and the occupation therapy doctorate program director at ASU. “Who is out there doing that intervention? Nobody. Jonesboro is heavy in industry and heavy in farming and agriculture, so there’s huge opportunities here that you don’t find in other places. And yet, there are very, very few practitioners in the Delta region.”
ASU turns out 30 graduates a year and first-year salaries in the $70,000 range are not uncommon.
One of the youngest medical specialties, having only been around for 52 years, the physician assistant specialty has enjoyed explosive growth in recent years, demand fed by shortages of other health care categories.
Working under the direction of a licensed physician, PAs can do just about everything a general practice doctor can do including diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications and often serve as a patient’s principal health care provider. PAs can also elect to go into various specialized areas making them key to expanding the reach of any health care facility. And, UAMS’ educational program only takes 26 months to complete.
“[PAs] increase the health care team, giving you more providers out there, seeing more patients,” says Edward Williams, chair of the department of physician assistant studies and director of the physician assistant program at UAMS.
The profession was named the No. 1 Best Health Care Job by US News and World Report, and No. 3 on the magazine’s Best 100 Jobs list last year. It was also ranked No. 7 highest paid job by Forbes and No. 5 Fastest-Growing Jobs in America from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Another compelling reason why people go into this field is the average national salary is about $110,000 a year,” Williams says. “We have graduates from our program that have jobs before they even graduate. There are some that get paid $120,000 to work in the emergency room.”
MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
The mental health industry also finds itself desperate for professionals to serve the community.
“Arkansas, in particular, is a high-need state,” says J. Art Gillaspy, professor of psychology and department chair at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “We have a high rate of mental health disorders and substance use disorders as well. As a smaller, more rural state we also have a lot fewer providers.”
UCA’s program channels students into one of three disciplines: A 60-hour master’s level licensed professional counselor; a five-year, 120-hour doctoral program in counseling psychology and a school psychology program. UCA is unique in Arkansas offering all three career tracks; in fact, relatively few colleges and universities in the state provide any training in the field of mental health professions at all.
Gillaspy doesn’t pull any punches when talking about the difficulties of the career, including high rates of burnout and, depending on the position, comparatively low pay. Even so, UCA’s classes are filled with students wanting to help patients lead a better life.
“It is a pretty high-stress job where you’re dealing with people who are in emotional distress, psychological distress. And, pretty much the entire state is considered a high-need area for mental health providers,” he says. “But for our [counseling] programs, we always have many more students applying than we have positions for.”