BTC in the Springfield Business Journal

Posted on February 7, 2023

“Addressing Needs Local medical colleges use grants to tackle nursing workforce challenges

by Mike Cullinan ·

     A pair of area medical colleges that received state grant funding in the fall are now investing the funds toward technology and new programs with the intent of attracting more students to the nursing profession.

     Bolivar Technical College and Cox College in Springfield were two of the 11 colleges or universities in the state to earn a portion of nearly $3 million in competitive grants. The funding was part of a special appropriation recommended and approved last year by Gov. Mike Parson to the Missouri State Board of Nursing, according to officials.

     Erin Mock, director of nursing education at BTC, said the school was notified in October it was approved for its full request of $296,000, roughly six weeks after submitting its grant proposal. “We were happy to be selected for it,” she said. “The quick turnaround is honestly a representation of how serious the Missouri State Board of Nursing, as well as the Department of Higher Education, are about addressing some of the issues that we have in nursing education.”

     Cox College also received all it was requesting – $269,793 – for a technology investment to bolster clinical access for students in its simulation labs, said President Amy DeMelo.

Challenges persist

     The grants come as a pair of recent studies highlight the ongoing workforce challenges in the nursing industry. In the 2022 Nursing Workforce Report, released by the Missouri Department of Commerce and Industry, roughly 81% of licensed nurses who can work already are employed full time in health care. Most of the nurses in the remaining 19% are either retired, looking for work outside of nursing or employed in another industry, according to the report. Very few were noted as unemployed and looking to return to health care work.

     Additionally, a Missouri Hospital Association report that analyzes the state of the hospital workforce revealed an average vacancy rate of nearly 20% for registered nurses working in hospitals. According to the survey data, Missouri has 33,692 nurses working in hospitals and 8,334 vacant staff nurse positions. “If they want a job, the jobs are plentiful. We know that from the report,” said Missouri State Board of Nursing Executive Director Lori Scheidt. “It tells you we’ve got a good chunk of nurses who will probably be retiring and exiting the workforce, so that’s concerning. What we want to do is move the needle so that individuals become a nurse and enter the nursing workforce earlier in their working career, so that you have them for a longer period.”

     Scheidt said some of the funded grants last fall included proposals from colleges to launch a licensed practical nursing program for students who just graduated high school, allowing them to start exploring the career path before embarking in higher education. “What might work as a workforce solution in one area of the state won’t work in another,” she said, adding another $2 million in grants will be offered this year to schools. “We wanted those programs to come to us with innovative solutions.”

Getting innovative

     BTC plans to utilize some of its grant funds to launch a pilot program this summer that creates a career ladder for new high school graduates to become certified nursing assistants, Mock said. “They then get advance acceptance into our practical nursing program,” she said. “It sets that high schooler up to enter the profession of nursing relatively quickly and with a great deal of support.”

     The college already has partnered with Bolivar High School, Mock said, noting the grant funds the program’s core development, instructors and scholarships for students. The scholarships provide students with up to $6,000 over two semesters. Plans are to eventually expand the program to other schools.

A second initiative for the grant funds is to further develop an already existing partnership with Citizens Memorial Hospital. Four of the college’s students completed CMH’s new LPN/RN apprenticeship program and graduated from the first cohort in December.

Students in any nursing program must complete clinical hours, Mock said. However, the apprenticeship program pays them for a portion of those hours, she said, adding the students agree to work with CMH upon graduation. “It’s a win-win for the student and the community. It starts integrating them into the culture of the hospital they’re working at,” she said, noting the grant has funded the hiring of an apprenticeship coordinator, who is responsible for oversight and mentorship of the students.

Mock said the grant also is funding between $15,000 and $18,000 for acquisition and implementation of virtual reality training as part of BTC’s already-developed physical simulation lab. The college is in the final stages of signing a contract with Amsterdam-based Elsevier Inc. for virtual reality headsets and programming, she said, adding plans are to begin the training option next month. “This virtual reality thing is going to completely change the game, where they are going to be able to use a VR headset and go in and interact with the patient and provide patient care,” she said. “You talk to them, pick things up and do everything just like you were really there.”

DeMelo said Cox College also is improving its simulation lab experience for students and invested its roughly $270,000 grant for technology, including cameras, televisions, network cabling and microphones. The college purchased 15 cameras, similar to a GoPro, which students wear into the simulation labs that utilize high-fidelity mannequins. “[The labs] simulate such things as heart attacks, birth – you name it, and we can simulate it,” she said, noting the cameras allow students to watch the simulation in other rooms at the college or even off campus. “That’s a great thing for students because it allows them to experience these events and learn in a controlled environment. The students can learn from each other and point out and identify what the student did right and what the student did wrong. It exposes more students to simulation because they are watching it happen in real time.”

The new technology isn’t specifically a recruiting tool but designed to enhance the student’s educational experience, DeMelo said. “We need to figure out ways in higher education to attract more students,” she said, adding the college’s enrollment this semester is 780.

Spring enrollment is regularly lower than the fall, DeMelo said. According to enrollment data over the past five years, the college has averaged 931 students in the fall and 869 in the spring. Mock and DeMelo both said the COVID-19 pandemic saw a dip in enrollment numbers. At BTC, the student total in 2021 dropped to 350 students from 377 in 2020. That was followed by 346 in 2022.

Still, there’s no shortage in educators, Mock said, noting the college is fully staffed at nine full-time instructors. Plans call to add two new faculty members by the fall semester, she said. While Cox College is two employees short of the 37 full-time instructors it seeks in nursing, DeMelo said no qualified students are being turned away. “We’re able to fill in with adjunct professors, which is wonderful,” she said. “But on the flip side, we’d prefer to have full-time faculty members. Those of us that have nursing programs in southwest Missouri can’t produce enough nurses to meet the demand.”