By Lee Bloomquist
Interest in healthcare as a career is thriving at Northeast Higher Education District (NHED) colleges.
Healthcare program enrollment at NHED campuses is as strong as ever as the schools are a little more than a month into the first semester, according to nursing program directors at campuses in Hibbing, Eveleth and Grand Rapids.
“It’s been a mainstay of our school for over 50 years,” Sandy Gustafson, nursing program director at Hibbing Community College, said of the nursing program. “The school is very good about supplying us with everything we need and making sure we have cutting edge supplies. We’re doing very well for a rural area.”
Healthcare is the largest program at HCC. This semester, 64 first-year students and 78 second-year students are enrolled in the college’s healthcare programs.
“As far as nursing, we are full,” said Gustafson. “Because we are full, we did have to turn away 10 students, which is rare, so we’re doing good that way.”
Typically, the program has about 78 to 85 second-year students, depending on how many students successfully complete their first year, said Gustafson.
First semester programming has been adjusted with distance learning opportunities. However, students are still able to utilize the school’s on-campus high-tech simulators and nursing education facilities.
The number of new students in Hibbing’s medical lab technician and medical coding and scribing programs has more than doubled compared to last fall, said Aaron Reini, HCC interim provost. Enrollments in a dental assistant and certified nursing assistant program are comparable to previous years, Reini said.
“Across the board, the faculty in our healthcare programs have done an exceptional job in innovating this past year, ensuring that students who are entering the healthcare sector continue to receive the best possible education and training,” Reini said.
Area hospitals, which for months were not permitting nursing students to work on clinicals at hospital campuses, are again allowing students into hospitals for clinical work, Gustafson said.
“We’re just waiting on nursing homes now,” said Gustafson. “We usually don’t start with that (clinicals at nursing homes) until fall.”
Demand for healthcare workers in northeastern Minnesota is projected to grow, Gustafson said.
“Especially up here with the elderly population we’re going to see a need for more and more workers,” said Gustafson. “We haven’t heard of any student having trouble getting a job.”
At Mesabi Range College in Eveleth and Virginia, Jeff Torrel, director of nursing, concurs.
“Enrollment is good,” said Torrel. “Our classes look a little different. We’re face-to-face the first part of the week and then we have the students off campus on Thursdays and Fridays.”
Enrollment this semester in Mesabi Range’s practical nursing program is 33.
“That’s similar to last year,” said Torrel. “We usually have in the low 30s to upper 30s.”
Another 30 to 40 students are enrolled in the school’s nursing assistant program.
“We generally have about 100 students per year in that program,” he said.
Mesabi Range’s practical nursing graduates primarily land jobs in long-term care, assisted living and mental health facilities. Some go on to become registered nurses.
“We can’t put out enough practical nurses for what the demand is. I would expect it to become even higher because of all the baby boomers retiring,” Torrel said.
Mesabi Range’s placement is 100 percent for its practical nursing graduates, he said. The program takes about a year-and-a-half to complete.
Mesabi Range students perform clinical work at area healthcare facilities such as the Cook Hospital, Range Mental Health, Essentia, Fairview Range, Waterview Woods assisted living facilities, and others.
“We are doing well,” Torrel said. “We always would like to see more students come here because demand is so high, but our numbers are healthy. If people want to work when they get done here, they will be able to work.”
At Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, 37 students are enrolled this semester in the practical nursing program, according to Lynette How, nursing director. That’s about the same as previous years, she said. The school’s nursing assistant program is full. Graduates have a 100 percent placement rate.
“There is a critical need for nursing assistants and practical nurses,” said How. “They are being recruited while still in school.”
An August 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report ranks Itasca’s practical nursing program seventh in the state “with an impressive 100 percent NCLEX-PN (National Council Licensure Examination) pass rate as of August 2019.”
NHED includes Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College, and Vermilion Community College.
Healthcare is one of the highest employment occupations in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Northeast Planning Region. However, healthcare employment took a hit in recent months as routine appointments and elective surgeries were postponed.
From February to July, 2,960 health services and education jobs were lost in the region, according to Carson Gorecki, DEED Northeast Regional Analyst.
But healthcare employment is now bouncing back. Unemployment claims for health practitioners and technical within the region have fallen from a peak average of 1,550 per week in early May to a weekly average of 309 at the end of August. Unemployment claims for health care support workers peaked at an average of 1,276 per week in early May and dropped to 676 weekly at the end of August.
Although difficult to predict precisely, demand for health care workers within the region is expected to grow, said Gorecki.
Within the Northeast Planning Region, 617 registered nurses, 425 home health aides, 166 nursing assistants and 79 licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses will be needed in the next 10 years, said Gorecki.
Nurse practitioners, home health aides, surgical technologists, nurse anesthetists, phlebotomists, surgical technologists, exercise physiologists and massage therapists are also among healthcare occupations projected to show strong job growth in the region, according to DEED.
“We do seem to be trending back to where we were with a tight labor market,” said Gorecki. “We have an aging population and we have more people leaving the labor force. I think demand for these workers will be high in the future.”