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Beefing up health care job exposure through early education

Meaningful experiences at elementary and middle levels are a starting point

Published August 29, 2018

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KINSTON, NC – If the average sixth grader isn’t interested in being a nurse or a doctor, chances are they won’t give a second thought to a career in health care because they probably aren’t aware of the other options. That’s unfortunate. As one of the fastest-growing career fields, health care includes hundreds of occupations, many of them far removed from the nurse and doctor roles.

“You can work in health care and not have to work with blood or needles or stuff like that. There’s a whole range of jobs,” says UNC Lenoir Health Care Human Resources Manager Jimmy Person, who noted that nurse and doctor are just two of more than 300 different job descriptions on file at the rural North Carolina hospital with just under 1,000 employees. There are positions in respiratory therapy, radiology, laboratory, IT, rehabilitation, nutrition services, medical records, and environmental services, to name a few.

The greatest employee shortage is in nurses and nurse assistants, which make up nearly one-third of the entire workforce at UNC Lenoir Health Care. The hospital is tackling this issue head-on by working with local school districts and Lenoir Community College to ensure local students know about the path to nursing and the many other available careers in health care.

A group of four nurses recently joined Person for a panel discussion focused on ways education could better enlighten and prepare students for careers in health care. One of the nurse panelists, Emily Baker, RN and BSN, works directly with patients. The other three draw from their experiences as floor nurses when attempting to attract more qualified candidates to the open positions. Misty Emory is an employment coordinator, Stephanie Fox is a human relations generalist, and Laura Guinn is an education specialist and workforce development coordinator.

All panelists agreed that exposure to a variety of health care careers at the middle school level – or even earlier – is necessary to turn the tide. (See related story, “Joining Forces.”) Hands-on experiential programs such as Pitsco Education’s STREAM Missions for elementary (for example, Being Healthy, Amazing Body, and Body at Work) and Expeditions for middle level (for example, Body Blueprint, Bio Research, and Vital Signs) have been implemented in many schools across eastern North Carolina through the efforts of STEM East, an offshoot of the NCEast Alliance.

“I didn’t have anything like that in middle school. In high school I was in HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and I did competition one year,” Baker said. “But that’s the only exposure I got to the health care field before I went off to college.”

Allowing students to explore health sciences and careers via collaborative, real-world experiences in Missions and Expeditions can ignite a spark of curiosity that carries into high school where opportunities for deeper dives into specific careers can occur in CTE courses and pathways.

Guinn invites high school students to visit the hospital and learn more firsthand. “We’ve been involved in the Teachers at Work and Students at Work programs for two years now, and I coordinate job shadowing. They come in for a couple of hours and are able to observe the staff, ask lots of questions, and just learn about that job to see if they’re interested or if they’re not interested.”

Emory is particularly interested in better career exploration opportunities for students because her son is in his freshman year of high school and aspires to a career in pharmacy. “I’ve talked to him about different careers for years, about the different things that he could do in hospital settings and in other professions as well,” she said. “I don’t think that students at the middle school and even at the high school level know all of the different options and careers that are out there. . . . They really don’t have any idea that you could be a CT tech or you could be a medical laboratory technologist. They just don’t have that exposure in schools.”

If early exposure to careers is as essential as the panelists say, then an important second step is to get middle school and high school students to spend time in hospitals and clinics. “I think hands on in the classroom is great for learning about critical thinking and working through problems,” Guinn said. “STEM focuses more on these student-led activities, which is great for leadership. But I just think taking them into the workplace is such an important piece of preparing them.”

Emory added that students must be taught about job options in their region, which would require flexibility to customize curriculum and course offerings to meet the needs of local business and industry. “I think that school systems need to have more local control over development of curriculum,” she said. “So much of it now is coming from the legislative end. Teachers have to get this covered and get this covered and get this covered. But is that meeting the needs of the local market and really exposing students to opportunities?”

“The summer [professional development] session was critical because it took all of our teachers through every activity that they would face, every Expedition the kids would be doing. It was vitally important.”

– Darius McKay, principal, Girard Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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