Juneau’s solution to the national health worker shortage? Hire locals and pay to train them.

Marchan Putong, who works at Bartlett Regional Hospital, recently finished her coursework and passed her CNA exam. The hospital is training new staff from the community to address the shortage of health care workers. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Alaska, like the rest of the nation, has a shortage of health care workers. In Juneau, care facilities have found a local solution to that problem: they are paying people to get certified as nursing assistants.

Wildflower Court, a nursing home in Juneau, closed an entire wing of its facility in early October because it didn’t have enough staff to operate it. Kirk Elmore, the nursing home’s administrator, says he would need to hire 11 certified nursing assistants, or CNAs, to open it back up.

But because of a national health worker shortage, he can’t find them.

So Elmore teamed up with Bartlett Regional Hospital, where they’re training new staff from the community — and he’s paying people to get certified.

“We’re providing them an hourly wage, as they’re taking the class we pay for the class. And we also pay for their licensing, with a commitment for them to come and work for us after they finished the coursework,” he said.

He says it’s an up-front investment for Wildflower Court, but it’s worth it. He gets to give staff that may already be employed with him a leg up to a better job. He says the investment stays in the community, which is a contrast to paying higher wages and fees for temporary traveling nurses.

Bartlett Regional Hospital’s staff development director, Jennifer Twito, says the hospital has also been fighting an uphill battle to keep nurses and CNAs. It’s why they started to train their own.

“It’s hard to recruit people into Juneau sometimes,” she said.

But just 18 hours after she posted the training offer, she says she had more local applicants than she could handle.

Twito says emergency regulations related to the pandemic make the program possible. Alaska usually has some of the most stringent requirements in the country for aspiring CNAs, but it has cut requirements in half during the public health emergency.

That expires at the end of the year. Twito says she’s not yet sure if the program will continue after that, but the hospital has made the most of the window. Her staff has trained a dozen locals in the first two cohorts. She’s got seven people signed up for another session this month.

“We’re creating career pathways for so many people in Juneau who maybe wouldn’t have an opportunity to get into the, you know, maybe they can’t get into the UAS program, because it’s always full. Maybe they don’t have the means to travel outside of Juneau to go to another program,” Twito said.

One of those people is Marchan Putong, who is now on a shift on Bartlett Regional Hospital’s third floor. Putong recently finished coursework and passed her CNA exam.

“I waited for so long, and this is it. I grabbed the opportunity,” she said.

Putong was a midwife in the Philippines until she moved to Juneau 11 years ago. She tried to take CNA training at the University of Alaska Southeast but didn’t pass the English exam. She found out about the opportunity at Bartlett because she was already working there, in housekeeping.

“For me, I start from the very low position, and then I go to CNA training program. And I get the job and it’s very easy because I already know the the building and other facilities, and they know me already,” she said.

The program has been a step up for several Bartlett employees. So far, only one Wildflower Court employee has gone through the training. But there are four more signed up this month. It’s not enough to reopen the closed wing, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter, KTOO

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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