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The demand for certified health care assistants and technicians continues to rise dramatically. The supply of students interested in filling those positions is rising just as dramatically. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that excessive demand of jobs and that excessive supply of students are combining to create a severe bottleneck at the state’s technical colleges.
The waiting period for admissions into allied health programs range from one to six years at all 16 Wisconsin technical colleges.
Allied health professions are certified service and management professions within health care, such as physical therapists, radiographers and medical assistants, according to the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professionals.
The growth in demand for health service workers is being fueled by the aging of the baby boom generation and the growing number of professionals who are retiring from the workforce, according to Dr. Nancy Vrabec, a registered nurse and interim dean of the health occupations division at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).
"All of the literature points to the fact that there will be a continuing increased demand related to demographics because the population is aging," Vrabec said. "MATC has helped to reduce the vacancy rate, but I don’t think it is going to completely ameliorate the problem."
At MATC, the demand is palpable:
— The pharmacy technician, surgical technician, renal dialysis technician and anesthesia technology programs won’t have any openings until August 2005.
— The cardiovascular invasive program, dental assistant, medical assistant and respiratory care programs won’t have any openings until August 2006.
— The medical assistant, phlebotomy programs won’t have any openings until January 2006.
— The physical therapy assistant program won’t have any openings until January 2007.
— The dental hygiene program won’t have any openings until January 2008.
— The cardiovascular echocardiography and radiography programs won’t have any openings until 2010.
On the supply side of the equation, the rising numbers of students interested in joining health care professions is being fueled by the state’s declining manufacturing sector, according to Vrabec and Bill Ihlenfedt, president of Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire.
"I think with the downsizing of manufacturing, people are looking to health occupations and see their own economic stability," Ihlenfeldt said. "They see good-paying jobs, skills they can use no matter where they are located."
The demand for most of those positions is only going to rise.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the employment of health technologists and technicians will increase 39.4 percent by 2012, with an estimated 2,170 annual job openings.
The department predicts a similar 32.8 percent increase for health care support occupations, with an estimated 4,100 annual job openings.
The health care industry as a whole is expected to be the largest employment sector in Wisconsin by 2010 with 287,930 employees, according to the department. The industry is expected to add 54,690 new jobs by 2010.
"It is a worldwide phenomenon," said Nancy Grisdale, director of employment for the Aurora Health Care metropolitan Milwaukee region. "There are shortages in many allied health professions, especially physical therapists, respiratory therapists, imaging services, radiologic technologists and pharmacists."
Grisdale said the health care industry always has been prone to cycles, but the shortages this time around are different, because they are directly reflecting the changing age demographics in the nation.
"Health care has continued to grow and expand, and has been driven by continued medical advancements and disease management that has allowed people to live longer," she said. "And we have an aging population that is beginning to draw on health care in record numbers."
Aurora is planning ahead for problems with staffing and worker availability in the near future, Grisdale said.
"We want to be a part of the solution," Grisdale said. "We are focusing on working with college and university programs to help support them, and we are looking at our ability to expand and create more non-traditional avenues for students to take and still be able to obtain a degree in a needed health care field."
Radiologic technologists and medical assistants are the support positions most in demand at Waukesha Health Care, a primary care organization associated with ProHealth Care, according to Jeff Bard, director of operations, and Toni Metherall, chief administrative officer.
Wheaton Franciscan Services, an organization that includes Covenant Healthcare System and All Saints Healthcare System, is experiencing shortages in workers to fill job openings in medical coding and respiratory therapy, according to Tom Zinda, system director of recruitment.
"We have interns and entry-level positions filled, but the challenge will be finding experienced workers once the current experienced employees retire," Zinda said.
The shortage of respiratory therapists is already obvious, he said. Covenant held an event in November to recruit respiratory therapists. After sending out postcards to every registered respiratory therapist in the area, only two people showed up.
"Organizations are going to have to somewhat become flexible, because we are just in the beginning stages of a major shortage and everything points to it," Zinda said.
Meanwhile, technical college students are eager to fill the demand for health care workers, but they are stuck on waiting lists for programs in the allied health degree programs.
"The waiting lists continue to be very impressive, even though the colleges have expanded their programs," said Judy Warmouth, vice president of workforce development for the Wisconsin Hospital Association. "The good news is that people will continue to be interested in health programs and steady jobs. The bad news is that even with increased enrollment, the colleges are still not able to accommodate the students who are interested."
Vrabec said the students are placed in program readiness, not waiting lists.
"Generally, the students are admitted more quickly than the estimated time," she said. "We keep in regular communication with the students and contact them each semester with updates on the program. The students in program readiness know that there is an estimated waiting time that may last (at least) two or three semesters."
The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) has attempted to accommodate prospective students by increasing program offerings and expanding class sizes since 2002.
The system’s progress report stated that between the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years, enrollment in health care occupations programs at the state’s technical colleges increased by 67.5 percent, from 13,847 students to 23,300 students.
During the 2003-2004 school year, five WTCS colleges collectively added nine programs at the associate degree level that made space available for 248 additional students.
WCTS also attempted to make health care programs more accessible to students with full-time jobs. In the 2003-04 school year, the colleges offered seven programs for distance education and 25 programs during evenings and weekends.
However, instead of relieving some of the demand for health care workers and health care degree program enrollment, the new programs and non-traditional program structures have in some ways created a larger problem with Wisconsin technical schools.
According to Vrabec and Ihlenfedt, the more the programs are expanded, the more students are attracted to them.
"It is almost the perfect storm," Ihlenfeldt said.
The waiting lists are not going to go away any time soon, especially with the continual amount of interest from high school students, according to Kristin Fennel, dean of allied health for Moraine Park Technical College, which has campuses in Fond du Lac, Beaver Dam and West Bend.
The goal of the technical colleges is not to alleviate the waiting lists, but to restore the continual flow of graduates, retirees and job creations in the health care industry, Fennel said.
"That is exactly what we are hoping will happen," Fennel said. "That would be the ideal."
Waiting lists
Degree program Estimated
first openings
Anesthesia Technology August 2005
Cardiovascular –
Invasive Program August 2006
Cardiovascular –
Echocardiography Program August 2010
Dental Assistant August 2006
Dental Hygiene January 2008
Medical Assistant January 2006
Physical Therapy Assistant January 2007
Pharmacy Technician August 2005
Phlebotomy January 2006
Radiography January 2010
Renal Dialysis Technician August 2005
Respiratory Care August 2006
Surgical Technology August 2005
Source: Milwaukee Area Technical College
New grants will help
The Wisconsin Technical College System Board took a step in addressing the state’s health care employment training bottleneck Nov. 8, when it awarded four grants totaling $654,3000 to the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
The grants are to be used to help MATC expand its registered nursing, practical nursing, radiography and certified nursing assistant programs. All four programs are filled to capacity, due to their excellent employment and earnings outlooks.
"As the baby boomers age and transition to retirement, demand for health care services has increased," said Nancy Vrabec, MATC interim dean of health occupations. "Most health care fields are facing serious staffing shortages. MATC can help ease these worker shortages, but only with additional funding to allow us to add classes. We are extremely grateful for the support which allows us to train these new health care professionals."
Partnerships could ease the health care staff demand
By Elizabeth Geldermann, of SBT
Wisconsin technical colleges are taking steps to alleviate waiting lists for allied health degree programs, while hospitals are attempting multi-faceted and non-traditional ways to train those willing to become certified. Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee and Moraine Park Technical College continue to accommodate students on waiting lists and partner with local hospitals in non-traditional ways.
Competing hospital systems, including Aurora Health Care, Covenant Healthcare System, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, are partnering to improve curriculums offered and to prevent further shortages of health care assistants and technicians.
Waukesha County Technical College keeps in touch with students waiting to be accepted into health programs, said Kathy Loppnow, associate dean of allied health.
"For every seven students interested, there is usually one qualified candidate," Loppnow said. "We are trying to have the definitions of program readiness unified throughout all 16 technical colleges, so the students who will most likely complete the program will have an easier time getting in."
Moraine Park Technical College, with campuses in Fond du Lac, Beaver Dam and West Bend, has added seven new programs within the last two years, according to Kristin Fennel, dean of allied health. For the fall semester, Moraine Park opened a respiratory care practitioner and a surgical technologist program only to students on waiting lists, Fennel said.
Moraine Park has partnered with St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, for use of its lab equipment. Moraine Park schedules blocks of time at St. Agnes to allow students to use the state-of-the-art equipment, Fennel said.
A $1.8 million health wing was completed for the fall semester at the Moraine Park Fond du Lac campus to accommodate students, Fennel said.
Froedtert has an elite radiologic technologist program. The full-time, two-year program accepts 20 students each year and does not have a waiting list because there is no guarantee applicants will be accepted. Applicants are required to have passed at least two years of college, said Sue Sanson, program director.
The radiologic technologist program works with Concordia University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to recruit applicants and also accepts independent applicants.
Students in the program routinely rotate through Children’s Hospital, Sanson said.
Two years ago, Covenant Healthcare System and Aurora Health Care partnered with the Private Industry Council to create an internal training program for surgical technologists.
The Covenant Aurora Surgical Technologist Training Program is offered to low-wage earning employees of either hospital who are in entry-level positions.
The surgical technologist program enrolled and graduated 25 students in the first year and another 20 students the second year. Through a grant from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, which accredited the program earlier this year, Aurora and Covenant cover the cost of training and books, while students continue to be paid their current hourly wage while taking classes.
Students complete the technical aspect of the curriculum at Covenant and fulfill clinical requirements at both Covenant and Aurora hospitals, said Dave Wilson, executive vice president of Private Industry Council Inc. When the second class graduates in December graduation, Aurora and Covenant will have 20 surgical technologists to place within their hospitals, and the students will receive a significant income increase.
"The program addresses the shortages in a shorter period of time, for not only one hospital, but for the entire system," Wilson said. "And the program created an opportunity for the public to not only attach to the workforce, but to advance within the workforce, which basically is not only increasing their earnings potential in a shorter period of time, but it increases it in the long run."
The Covenant Aurora Surgical Technologist Training Program received the 2004 Exemplary Employer Award in May from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Because of the success of the surgical technologist program, the hospitals plan to partner to create similar training programs for other professions are in great demand, said Tom Zinda, system director of recruitment for Wheaton Franciscan Services, which includes Covenant Healthcare System.
"When staffing a hospital, you can buy, borrow or build them," Zinda said. "We need to continue to look at how we can build them because we are not finding staff anywhere else. To prevent a critical shortage, you need to continue to think out of the box."
November 12, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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