Health care: New program aims to fix worker shortage

Working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for the staff at Singing River Health System – a challenge only compounded by staffing issues.

Singing River hopes to address the nationwide shortage of healthcare workers directly through its new apprenticeship programs.

The Singing River Health Care Workforce Academy is a community program on the Gulf Coast that aims to create more opportunities for people to become skilled health care professionals.

The academy offers apprenticeships, such as the Surgical Technology Apprenticeship and Certified Nursing Assistant Apprenticeship, to create opportunities for people to continue working while they learn and accelerate their careers.

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is working with Singing River on the licensed practical nurse (LPN) apprenticeship program, which hospital officials say is the first of its kind in the state. Jessica Lewis, the hospital’s director of human resources, hopes other hospitals will soon adopt the apprenticeship model to generate more career opportunities for Mississippians interested in working in the medical field.

“We’re making a huge investment in really training (people) and filling those gaps. The most important thing is to make sure we develop and build pipelines because we will continue to have staffing crises,” she said. “We have to go there by teaching and training our own.”

Singing River Health System will create more than 220 jobs while training more than 1,000 students as a result of the program, according to the hospital.

Students can start at the academy as early as high school so young people can learn about the medical field and make informed career decisions. Singing River has partnered with Jackson County and Harrison County high schools to engage 11th and 12th grade students in pre-apprenticeship programs and plans to expand to schools in Hancock County.

Singing River will offer immediate employment to qualified graduates in critical, high-demand specialties such as certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians and licensed practical nurses.

Kelly Powell, a 33-year-old mother of three from Texas, has worked at Singing River as a medical assistant for nine months. She will graduate from the LPN program in September 2023.

Before joining Singing River, she lived in New Orleans and worked for Ochsner Health System. After being displaced by Hurricane Ida, she describes her arrival in Mississippi as a “blessing in disguise.”

“My children’s father and I packed for three to four days to evacuate and found we couldn’t go home after the storm,” she said.

She went to Gauthier with her family. Her employers at Ochsner told her to find a branch in the Gulf area and get to work.

“I found Singing River in Pascagoula and they hired me on the spot. . . . I didn’t have interview clothes or a car.”

She hopes that completing the program will help her pay off her student loan debt from when she attended college.

“This program is the golden ticket. When I graduate, I will be debt free.

Once she graduates, she will sign a contract agreeing to work at Singing River for at least two years after completing the program.

The hospital plans to build a new facility to house this program, which is currently operating in a temporary location, in addition to a community health education center.

Construction on that facility near Ocean Springs Hospital will begin soon and will be paid for with a $7 million grant from the state, Lewis said. Topics covered at the community health education center will include smoking cessation, first aid, parenting, breastfeeding and childbirth.

There will also be an emphasis on mental health, Lewis said. All of these programs will also be offered virtually through their Digital Medicine program, a program created by Ochsner Hospital System that allows people to manage their high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes insulin from your phone and provides telehealth visits.

Eric Shelton contributed to this report.

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