Partnering up to close the healthcare skills gap

Partnering up to close the healthcare skills gap
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The labor market in McAllen, Texas, is in a state of transformation. Unemployment, which has fallen steadily in recent years, is now near an all-time low. But the population — and the number of job openings — continues to grow. 

We have, perhaps, grown accustomed to a labor market where the number of jobs exceeds the number of job seekers. But economic success is not without challenges. Skills gaps can erode a city’s long-term growth and competitiveness. And in fields like healthcare, such gaps can pose risks to more than just economic well-being.

As a growing population is putting increased pressure on our local healthcare infrastructure, McAllen's healthcare industry has grown by 24.7 percent over the last five years — outpacing statewide growth by over 10 percentage points. But the resulting demand for healthcare workers is also putting pressure on our workforce development and training infrastructure, which means that in McAllen — like many parts of the country — we face a shortage of healthcare professionals that is projected to increase over the next five years.  

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Closing skills gaps in increasingly dynamic sectors like healthcare demands fresh thinking at the intersection of education and employment. And it is giving rise to unconventional partnerships between not just local colleges and employers but high schools and training centers that provide the sort of last-mile training workers need to upskill into healthcare jobs.  

In 2015, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District launched an ambitious Nursing Career Pathway Program that allows students to graduate from high school while simultaneously earning a free nursing associate degree. With that credential, they are prepared for well-paying jobs, and to help meet the growing demand for registered nurses in the community. 

Local healthcare employers like Valley Internal Medicine Associates and Med-Fast Management Services have teamed up with the College of Health Care Professions to create blended allied health programs, including certificates in medical assisting and medical coding and billing, in which students are on campus two days a week and learn remotely the rest of the week.

This helps students who are working or raising a family — or both — balance their life obligations with their education. These unique programs are designed for students to quickly enter the workforce. The medical assistant certification program, for example, is completed in an average of nine months. Graduates can later stack credentials and programs that lead not only to a degree but also to a lifelong career.

The success of these programs is rooted in support for not just academic but career outcomes — from the first day students arrive on campus, through externships that allow students to work in a healthcare environment.

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On the demand side of the labor market equation, we’re encouraging employers to get in the game through the Texas Internship Challengewhich encourages industry and employer partners to offer paid internships and asks universities and colleges to promote and grant academic credit for internship opportunities.

Another statewide campaign, called Careers in Texas Industries, is designed to raise awareness about the future of the state’s in-demand industries, helping parents and educators learn about potential careers through networking with industry professionals, and is critical to promoting high-demand occupations, including those in the healthcare sector.

Taken together, our efforts are designed to blur the line between the world of work and the world of school in ways that reflect the untapped potential for working learners, who understand that their individual aspirations — and the demands of our local economy — are often two sides of the same coin. We’re working to build awareness that, as the population continues to grow, it is vital that the healthcare industry grows with it, providing high-quality care and giving workers opportunities to earn a better living.

Together, we are finding innovative ways to help students obtain the training and education they need to start successful careers and help their communities thrive, both in the Rio Grande Valley region and nationwide.

Ruth Hughs is the chair and commissioner representing employers of the Texas Workforce Commission. Keith Patridge is the president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation.