Bridging the labor gap: Seeing upskilling as a strategic solution

As organizations wrestle with staff turnover and struggle with retention, providing educational opportunities for the workforce can pay dividends.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an exodus of workers in the healthcare industry. More than 145,000 healthcare providers left their jobs in 2021 and 2022. Today, a third of surveyed healthcare workers say they plan to leave their current jobs within the next year, while 14 percent plan to leave the industry entirely.

Adding to these challenges, the growing healthcare needs of an aging U.S. populace are expected to create the need for an additional 2.1 million staff members in the industry by 2032, putting even more pressure on a widening labor gap.

The dual impact of employee loss and increased demand underscores how crucial it is for healthcare organizations to not only attract new employees but also retain their existing talent. Sign-on bonuses, the typical industry go-to for dealing with staffing shortages, might help with finding new staff but they will do nothing for retention.

Fortunately, healthcare organizations can attract and retain talent by creating more growth opportunities for new and existing employees. A recent Gallup report revealed that 65 percent of workers consider employer-provided upskilling opportunities very important in their assessment of prospective job opportunities.

Another survey by MIT found that a year-long soft-skills training program delivered a 250 percent return on investment within just eight months. This gain stemmed from both heightened team productivity and improved employee retention. It seems that investing in the healthcare workforce can stem attrition and strengthen the internal talent pipeline for health systems.

Upskilling priorities

In my experience working with health systems across the United States, I’ve seen two broad education paths where organizations are likely to see the highest demand.

The first path involves employees taking the steps to earn or finish a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, usually in nursing or another health science. The second path involves gaining a specific clinical or technical certification, which, depending on the certification, may also require the learner to have a degree.

Either path can lead to an immediate role promotion and higher take-home pay, a clear benefit for healthcare workers but also for their employers, which can now fill hard-to-source roles with internal hires.

Degree programs

By far the most popular learning path among healthcare employees is to progress from an associate degree in nursing to a bachelor of science degree in nursing. At one health organization, this one degree path made up 37 percent of all degree enrollments across the health system. This type of program can help registered nurses reach leadership positions in hospital systems, while also making the goal of becoming a clinical nurse more attainable.

According to Nursing Process, a nurse holding a BSN can expect to earn an average annual salary of $80,000, about 10 percent more than a nurse with an associate degree would typically earn. In addition, designated magnet hospitals – the gold standard for nursing practice – typically require BSNs for those on their nursing staffs.

Other top degree programs for healthcare workers include bachelors’ of applied science in health administration, biological sciences and health sciences. For those taking the extra step of pursuing a master’s degree, the top three are master’s degrees in healthcare innovation, social work and nursing.

Based on these choices, it’s clear that healthcare workers generally aren’t looking to explore programs outside of their field. Also, clinical professionals are interested in moving into leadership positions or even hospital administration.

Clinical and technical certifications

When it comes to medical certifications, healthcare employees have a wide array of options to choose from, ranging from clinical to technical. Depending on where an employee’s interests lie, there are four primary areas in which healthcare workers want to attain skills.

The clinical certification that appears to be most in demand is to become a certified clinical medical assistant (CCMA), which is great for entry-level employees looking to move into caregiving in a clinical setting. This path is attractive to individuals who work in a hospital setting but are not currently in a clinical role, such as unit clerks, environmental services and parking attendants.

The second area is a certificate in either medical terminology or professional coding. Individuals with one or both of these certificates tend to be in high demand, reflecting the increased need for specialists who can navigate the increasingly complex and technology-based world of medical records and billing.

Another high priority area is healthcare analytics, where employees are increasing their skills with a certificate in Google Data Analytics. Analytics is a fast-growing field that remains in high demand. As such, a health organization that chooses to invest in creating an internal pipeline in this area will see strong returns.

Lastly, there is often significant interest in short certification courses that can help caregivers improve their patient interaction skills. Some examples of these courses include Spanish for medical professionals, training to become a patient care technician and English language learning.

Making upskilling available

While healthcare employees – especially those in entry-level positions – may have a strong desire to continue their education journey, they often lack the financial means to do so.

Fortunately for healthcare providers, training existing staff is much less expensive in the long run than acquiring new staff, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars for just one RN. That money is better spent providing upskilling opportunities for existing staff, especially when that education drives both higher retention and a robust internal talent pipeline.

Further, as most hospital systems have a mission to serve the greater good in their communities, providing education support for employees who may lack the ability to pay for the training themselves is both financially wise for the system and supportive of the organization’s wider mission.

For most health systems, a prepaid tuition program will make upskilling available to the broadest set of employees, especially if organizations also cover out-of-pocket expenses such as fees and books. These programs can be set up fairly quickly using a network of academic providers offered through various vendors with relationships with clinical program providers and degree-granting institutions.

It's clear that employee upskilling programs can serve as an investment rather than merely an expense. Health organizations cannot hire themselves out of the widening labor gap. There needs to be a more strategic mindset on how organizations can strengthen their current and future talent pools to meet the labor challenges of the future. Doing so will not only solve those labor challenges but also improve the level of care that patients receive.

Michelle Westfort is the chief university officer at InStride.

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