To Solve Healthcare Worker Shortage, Policymakers Should Approve High-Quality Short-Term Training Programs for Federal Student Aid

To Solve Healthcare Worker Shortage, Policymakers Should Approve High-Quality Short-Term Training Programs for Federal Student Aid
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Healthcare workers deserve more than just praise in the fight against COVID-19. It’s time for policymakers to invest in fortifying and replenishing our frontline healthcare workforce.

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The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that some of the true heroes of this crisis are frontline healthcare workers. While many of us have the privilege of practicing social distancing, these brave men and women are putting their lives on the line every day to save the lives of others.

America was already facing a public health workforce shortage before Covid-19. Now, many health professionals are working overtime or coming out of retirement to help in areas that are overwhelmed by the virus. Frontline healthcare workers deserve more than just our verbal appreciation in times of crisis. They deserve a national commitment from policymakers to invest in the education and training needed to meet the demands of the current crisis and create a pipeline of workers that is vital to preparing for future healthcare needs.

A critical step is for policymakers to immediately extend federal financial aid to high-quality, short-term training programs in high-demand industries, like healthcare. This would help new and incumbent workers quickly access the training and credentials to meet current demand and the anticipated workforce needs of the future as the population continues to age rapidly.

While doctors and other highly trained clinicians play a critical role in healthcare delivery, a vast majority of healthcare jobs are in technical, administrative, and support roles like medical assistants, licensed vocational nurses, and laboratory workers. These allied healthcare jobs, which tend to require education and training that fall between a high school degree and a four-year degree, are the positions where we currently have substantial worker shortages, primarily due to lack of access to affordable education and accelerated training.

Individuals looking to enroll in the training needed for these jobs are often ineligible for federal financial aid because of language that was written into the Higher Education Act decades ago. It states that students in an enrolled course must meet an arbitrary “seat-time” of 600 clock hours over 15 weeks to be eligible for Pell grants. This has created a gap in tuition assistance for many students, including those working towards careers in essential fields like nursing, which often require multiple, stackable credentials. 

Education equals greater opportunity. Giving workers access to the credentials they need allows them to step into good-paying jobs, feed their families, while continuing their journey towards their ultimate educational aspiration.

The sooner we can make short-term education and training available, the better. In respose to the pandemic, we are likely to need new home caregivers who can care for patients recovering from Covid-19, community health workers who can conduct contact tracing to track down the origin of an outbreak, and more.

Futuro Health, a California-based nonprofit established by Kaiser Permanente and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) to address the nation's allied health worker shortage, is committing $1 million to deliver new pandemic-readiness training to prepare frontline healthcare workers for an expected surge in Covid-19 cases. The organization is waiving all fees and tuition for California’s over 100,000 LVNs (also called "licensed practical nurses" in other states) to ensure these workers safely expand for acute care.

But the urgent need for more healthcare workers is a structural issue that no one organization can solve on its own. Lawmakers can help by extending Pell grants to students enrolled in high-quality, short-term training programs at community and technical colleges.

This would make in-demand credentials in healthcare and other industries more affordable for workers, particularly Black and Hispanic workers who we know are more likely to take on student debt than their White counterparts. It would expand opportunities for underrepresented workers of color to access high-paying healthcare jobs, thereby diversifying our workforce and ensuring that healthcare workers reflect the communities they serve.

The key is to ensure there are quality control guardrails around these programs. Pell-eligibility for short-term programs must offer training aligned with the needs of employers in high-demand industries. The training must equip students with a postsecondary credential that is recognized and valued by the industry. Community and technical colleges that offer short-term programs should also be required to put career pathways in place for students who choose to continue to a longer-term certificate or degree program following completion of their program.

Federal financial aid for quality, short-term training will help shore up our healthcare workforce, allowing us to deploy skilled professionals to communities battling Covid-19. It isn’t the only answer, but it’s the start we desperately need.

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