University of Michigan Health-West will help nursing students at Grand Rapids Community College pay for their training through a new partnership designed to address an acute nursing shortage.
Under the initiative, the health system intends to pay for up to three semesters of tuition for students enrolled in GRCC’s nursing program who have completed one semester of their instruction. Nursing students accepted into the program would have to commit to working at University of Michigan Health-West for two years after earning a two-year degree at GRCC and securing their state license.
University of Michigan Health-West will then “encourage and support their completion of a bachelor’s degree in nursing through existing partnerships and tuition reimbursement,” according to an announcement on the partnership with GRCC.
“By removing cost barriers — including for adult learners and others who need to continue working while finishing their education — the program creates and nurtures a diverse pipeline of local health care talent,” University of Michigan Health-West CEO Dr. Peter Hahn said in a statement. “We see this as an investment not just in our workforce but in West Michigan itself. This is a way to ensure that the new generation of rising health care leaders reflects the communities we serve.”
Labor challenges worsen
Today’s announcement cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that predict a deep shortage of nurses nationally, with 203,000 openings annually across the U.S. through 2031.
In West Michigan, the most recent Health Check report published by Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business projects employment for registered nurses in the four-county Grand Rapids area to grow by 1,171 positions between 2020 and 2028, to 15,111. When retirements, increased demand, attrition and other issues are figured into the equation, GVSU projects the Grand Rapids-area market to average more than 900 registered nurse job openings annually, including 130 new positions each year, according to the 2022 Health Check report that uses state and federal data.
Statewide, Michigan will average a projected 6,442 RN job openings annually through 2028, including the growth of 956 new positions.
This year’s Health Check report noted that a “decrease in the number of high school graduates, along with a notable decrease in the number of education jobs in the last few years, suggests that the pool of individuals entering university programs may decrease in future years” across several health care professions.
“As such, policy and community efforts will be vital to retain the current skilled healthcare workforce, as well as encourage talented individuals to pursue degrees leading to employment within the health care sector,” GVSU researchers wrote.
Care providers have long been dealing with a shortage of nurses that has worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, as many professionals retired or left for other care settings such as a high-paying travel nurse organization, or moved to an entirely different profession.
At one point in the pandemic, University of Michigan Health-West had a 20 percent vacancy rate for nursing positions, Chief Nursing Officer Steve Polega told MiBiz. The vacancy rate has since settled at 12 to 15 percent at the health system, which presently employs about 830 nurses. University of Michigan Health-West has been filling talent gaps with high-cost travel nurses, Polega said.
‘Do something proactive’
The GRCC partnership will help to “feed our pipeline and grow our pipeline of nurses that are working here,” he said.
“The pandemic was life-changing for a lot of people. We had a lot of people leave the nursing field, and we had a lot of our most experienced folks retire early and that left a big experience gap there, and it seems like folks are not coming back to nursing,” Polega said. “It’s really caused a challenge for all of the local hospitals to fill their positions … so we really felt like we had to do something proactive to fill some of those holes.”
The health system is funding the program through support from the University of Michigan Health-West Foundation that committed funding for 20 positions annually for two years. The health system now seeks a permanent funding source to support the program beyond 2024, Polega said.
“We are already pursuing funding to fund this program longer than two years. We’re working with our foundation and working with other opportunities to secure funding,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get funding to have this program go on for several years.”
As well, University of Michigan Health-West has had “preliminary talks” with other community colleges about similar nursing partnerships, Polega said. The health system can expand the program if it can secure funding and would approach other potential partners “if we get a big donation,” he said.
“The beauty of the program we developed is that it is really scalable,” Polega said.
Through the partnership with GRCC, University of Michigan Health-West aims to have 10 to 15 nursing students enroll in the program in December and graduate in April 2023. The program will target 10 additional nursing students in each of the next three semesters through December 2024, or 20 per year.
“Assisting students with tuition allows them to focus on completing their education, and ultimately enter the workplace more quickly and better prepared,” said Michelle Richter, GRCC’s Nursing Program director. “The opportunity for employment upon graduation allows students to be able to serve the community in a rewarding career, and continue adding skills and advancing their education.”
The application for the program started last week. University of Michigan Health-West will select participants within a few weeks, with a preference for present employees who want to become a nurse, Polega said.
The partnership between GRCC and University of Michigan Health-West is the latest effort in the region seeking to bring more people into the nursing profession.
Corewell Health Ludington Hospital early this month formed a nursing apprenticeship program. Participants will enroll in West Shore Community College’s nursing program for classroom instruction and clinical education and work at Corewell Health Ludington Hospital where they’ll receive on-the-job training.
The program should begin in 2023 and is intended to expedite how long nursing students take to prepare to provide patient care.
“The rural health workforce faces many challenges, including nursing shortages,” said Meleah Mariani, chief nursing officer at Corewell Health Ludington Hospital. “The registered nurse apprenticeship can open doors for those who otherwise might not pursue a career in nursing. So many times, I have heard someone say, ‘I always wanted to be a nurse,’ but the need to work full-time, the demands of childcare, and other associated expenses create roadblocks.”
Corewell Health back in April also committed $19 million toward increasing the talent pipeline for nurses who earn their degree at Grand Valley State University. Under the West Michigan Nurse Scholar program, the Grand Rapids health system seeks to support up to 500 additional students over six years at the GVSU Kirkhof College of Nursing.
GVSU planned to use the funding to support student financial aid, clinical placements, enhanced curriculum, technology and equipment, and student support services.