Training workers for the healthcare boom

While new jobs may be scarce overall, in healthcare the demand is so great that local schools are adding courses and coping with an influx of students.

Even the closing of Shands at AGH last year, which eliminated 1,000 jobs, had only a modest impact on healthcare jobs overall, thanks in part to positions that opened up at the new Shands Cancer Center, the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center and the North Florida Regional Medical Center.

“The medical industry is still growing and growing in Gainesville,” says Scott Fortner, health sciences counselor at Santa Fe College. “It’s still a big draw.”

This growth in healthcare reflects a national trend, as an aging population creates the need for more skilled caregivers. For example, Dr. Joe Fantone, the senior associate dean for educational affairs at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, says there will be a significant shortage of physicians, especially in primary care, in the coming years.

There’s another issue at play in the need for medical
professionals: New workers don’t want to put in the
extensive hours that had been common to past generations. Fifty percent of the graduates coming out of medical school are women, and Fantone says these women want to take time with their families. Also, the number of hours physicians want to work per week is decreasing because they want a better quality of life and more time with their families,
Fantone says.

Where Workers Train

UF has always been a preeminent school for students looking to receive training in the medical field, including students pursuing medical degrees and those pursing nursing, pharmacy and dentistry degrees. In addition, Santa Fe College has garnered quite a reputation in the medical field, especially locally, Fortner says. Its programs draw students from outside the local area due to their quality, he adds.

When Sherrita Perry, now a registered nurse who works in trauma at Shands UF, was looking into schools, she knew she wanted to go to Santa Fe College because “they have a very good program that is well-respected in the community.”

Pressure for spots in both UF and Santa Fe programs is intense. UF now has approximately 2,800 applicants for the 135 positions in its first-year medical class and more than 1,000 applicants for the 60 first-year positions in the School of Physician Assistant Studies.

In 2010, Santa Fe had 309 students apply for its nursing program, which only had 140 available slots last year, and 189 students applied for 35 seats in radiography. The number of seats in a program is determined in part by community needs and resources, both at Santa Fe and in the training hospitals, Fortner

The Lure of the Profession

Students are drawn to healthcare for a number of reasons. Some are turning to the field because they see it as an area of consistent job growth. In addition, Santa Fe College has enrolled several students who are retooling themselves after layoffs or are after coming out of retirement. These students often enroll in some of the shorter-term programs Santa Fe offers and sometimes are back earning money within one year.

“Our goal is to provide healthcare workers and in the process of that, I think we help to retool America’s economy,” Fortner says. “We saw so many people coming in in the last two years [saying] ‘I need a job. I need to get into something really fast. What can you do for me?’”

Santa Fe is also attracting veterans coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

When students look into Santa Fe’s programs, Fortner says they usually want to know two simple things: “Will I pass the [licensing] test and will I get a job?”

Santa Fe has an extremely high pass rate on tests, typically between 90 and 100 percent.

Fortner stresses that not everyone is cut out for careers in the medical field, however. “All too often, they hear about the employability of healthcare, but healthcare is not a fit for their personality,” he says. “We’re just as likely to refer them to other careers in Santa Fe.”

Longer degree programs, taking up to three years,
obviously provide more opportunities. During shorter programs, ranging from a semester to one year, students can learn the skills to become surgical technicians, licensed practical nurses, dental assistants and certified nursing assistants.

“We train you to go in and hit the ground running with a job,” Fortner says. “You can conceivably go right to a
hospital in town and get a job.”

Also, in response to the growing need for nurses with bachelor’s degrees, Santa Fe will launch a bachelor’s
program in nursing this fall for current registered nurses who have their  license and have completed an AA degree.

One of the ways that Santa Fe ensures that it is training students in areas of need is through its advisory boards.
Advisory board members are active in the local medical community, allowing them to observe changes in the market and in technology, which they pass on to Santa Fe.

Cutting Edge Education

One of the advantages for UF medical students is that they get to use state-of-the-art technology in treating patients, including stem-cell biology and the latest types of chemotherapy, Fantone says. In addition to the
variety of technologies and techniques available to UF
students, a medical education there provides opportunities for students to treat a diverse patient population at several kinds of
facilities, including Shands at UF, the VA Medical Center, Shands Jacksonville and rural practices.

Santa Fe has created programs with a mix of both
academic learning and hands-on knowledge. Students go through a progression of classroom instruction, laboratory training and then clinical training.

“There is an emphasis on practical learning,” Perry says.

In addition to the curriculum, both Santa Fe and UF feature instructors who are front-line professionals. They can provide students with training based on real-world conditions.

Keeping New Grads in Town

Since both University of Florida and Santa Fe students spend time working with professionals at local hospitals, they often create relationships that later lead to jobs. This happened for both Armenthis Lester at the VA Medical Center and Perry at Shands UF.

One of the big advantages of UF’s medical residency program is that as positions open up, local hospitals can choose from a group of high-quality candidates, Fantone explains.

“We try to recruit and retain the very best coming out of the program,” Fantone says. North Florida and the other local hospitals can also “pick off our best residents.”

Fantone says he doesn’t currently have data showing how many medical students stay in the area, but he says one of the biggest determining factors regarding where doctors end up is where they do their residency. During residency training, “they meet people in the local community, they start their families, and they become connected to the area,” Fantone explains.

In addition to the easy transition from clinical training into paying positions, the Gainesville area retains its new professionals due to a variety of factors, including weather, cost of living and the community itself.

“The reason I stayed in Gainesville was the church I attended,” Lester says. “I had community connections that really encouraged me to stay. If it wasn’t for that…I was going to live in Winter Park.”

On the research side of things, spin-off companies in the medical field also create an attractive pull for newly graduated students, Fantone says. Still, Lester says the Gainesville community could do more to keep students after graduation. Gainesville has a lot of events for families, but there are very few activities for single professionals who are uninterested in clubbing and bars. Most restaurants close at 10 on weekdays.

“You look at Atlanta or Denver or Charlotte or Asheville,” she says. “These cities have transformed themselves because they cater to single professionals.”

Lester suggested more arts, like jazz, and more enriching multicultural activities, such as concerts and city-wide gourmet food festivals.

In addition, Fantone recommends that the Gainesville community point out the diverse cultural and religious activities in the community.

As far as the future goes, Fantone says that UF is continuously modifying its educational programs to best prepare its graduates to provide high-quality and compassionate patient care and to adapt to changes in healthcare delivery.

In addition, Santa Fe hopes to add more fast-track programs at some point in the future.

“We’re always opening our minds and eyes to what the community’s needs are,” Fortner says.



According to Scott Fortner, the health sciences counselor at Santa Fe College, there are several jobs in the medical field that are hot right now or will be in the near future.

Nursing is always a huge need. All kinds of nurses are in high demand, but especially registered nurses and certified nursing assistants. Registered nurses can make up to $40,000 during their first year, and certified nursing assistants can make up to $20,000. The certified nursing assistant position is often a stepping stone for a higher degree in nursing. In order to meet the demand for nurses with bachelor’s degrees, Santa Fe will launch a bachelor’s program in nursing this fall.

Another career that is extremely employable right now is respiratory care. Surgical technologists, who assist surgeons, and dental assistants are also in high demand. Respiratory therapists can earn up to $37,000 in their first year, and surgical technologists can make up to $30,000. Dental assistants average around $25,000 for their first year.

“Those are probably the four where they are going to walk in right away and they’re going to get a job locally,” Fortner says.

As the economy picks up, Fortner foresees radiological technologists, who read x-rays, and cardiovascular technologists, who diagnose heart disease, also picking up in demand. Radiological technologists can earn up to $37,000 per year, and cardiovascular technologists can earn between $38,000 and $56,000.

Since the population is aging, diagnostic centers and hospitals are expanding and will need to hire more technicians of all kinds, making the medical field an extremely viable choice.

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