Opinion: In praise of community colleges: a spawning ground for health professionals

Picture Gloria, a 20-year-old woman who lives in the San Gabriel Valley. After graduating high school with great grades in math and science, she wants to be a certified nursing assistant – a position high in demand and that would put her on a path towards stable, secure employment in the growing health care field.

Nearby community colleges offer such programs, but even with strong test scores and other prerequisites, Gloria is put on a waiting list, where she waits. And waits. And still waits two years later.

This scenario, unfortunately, is all too common across California. But the implications go far beyond a simple lack of opportunity for students. Gloria’s inability to begin her health education impacts the state’s economy and the very quality of care we’ll receive in years to come.

California’s health fields are projected to face severe talent shortages in the future, yet our education system isn’t producing the number of workers we’ll need – a gap that will become even more apparent when millions of baby boomers retire from health jobs and also require more medical care.

We’ve heard dire predictions about shortages of physicians and nurses, but the same will be true for allied health professionals, which account for 65 percent of all health workers. These 50-plus positions support doctors and nurses, ranging from certified nursing assistants to x-ray technicians to pharmacy assistants and physical therapists.

In September 2009, Beacon Economics estimated that California now employs 605,000 allied health workers and will require almost 1 million by 2030. This sector will be key to economic growth, with a collective earning power of $116 billion and generating $9.6 billion in payroll taxes by 2030. However, the state’s colleges have the capacity to train only two-thirds that amount.

Colleges would welcome the opportunity to expand allied health programs. A recent survey of California community colleges found that 72 percent of allied health deans report that those programs are their school’s most sought after, and 97 percent report that those graduates usually succeed in finding employment.

But only six percent of colleges were able to accept all qualified applicants for allied health programs in 2009 and 2010, and only one in four accepted all or most. In fact, one in four community colleges had to eliminate one or more allied health training programs during the past two years, while one out of five reduced their number of seats.

This is the wrong direction. And if we don’t change course, jobseekers and employers alike will have to look to training programs outside of California to meet their needs.

It’s time for an ambitious plan that helps our education system produce the workforce we’ll need: home-grown professionals that can provide more local, culturally competent care.Concentrating on the issue of diversity within the workforce will be instrumental to addressing health access and education in communities with a history of limited health services.

In addition, we must look at increasing the number of classes provided for these allied health jobs, providing for more primary care doctor training and residencies in the state, beefing up nursing faculties, and encouraging more partnerships between health providers and educators. (When asked why their colleges had to reject qualified applicants, 65 percent of deans cited too few partnerships with health providers, which can be essential in providing the clinical space, instructor expertise and other resources that help students finish their training.)

The responsibility does not lie with educators alone but rather all of us. And we must begin to tackle this problem now – for our economy, for the quality of care for California’s aging and growing population, and so our higher education system can once again be the envy of the world.

A failure to act now will mean we leave behind the Glorias in our communities, who want, deserve and are ready for the opportunity to step onto one of our most stable, promising career paths – in California. A failure to act now will mean an ever-escalating crisis where more and more Californians find themselves without access to even the most basic health care services.  

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