By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The ongoing shortage of health care workers is a regular topic of discussion for Sarah Barfknecht.
It comes up during her classes at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where she’s studying business administration and health care management, and at her job as a human resources intern with Kearney Regional Medical Center.
“There’s definitely a lot of open positions,” Barfknecht said. “I don’t know that there will ever quite be enough people to fill the demand.”
A 2020 report from the University of Nebraska Medical Center outlines the challenges:
- 14 of the state’s 93 counties don’t have a primary care physician
- All counties, except Douglas and Lancaster, are designated as shortage areas for at least one type of primary care
- Fields such as occupational therapy and audiology face continuing shortages and more nurses are needed in rural areas
- Roughly 20% of the state’s nurses, dentists and physicians are over the age of 60 and nearing retirement
The good news is this means there are countless opportunities for young people to pursue these high-wage, high-impact careers.
Nationwide, employment in the health care field is expected to grow by 16% over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding about 2.6 million new jobs during that time – more than any other occupational group.
“There’s a lot of job security in health care, and we know that’s not going away. In fact, the need continues to grow. We need more people to practice health care in rural Nebraska,” said Julie Calahan, coordinator of UNK’s Health Science Explorers program.
Part of the Department of Health Sciences, the UNK program aims to address this issue by introducing more middle and high school students to health care careers and educational paths.
On Wednesday, about 400 high schoolers from across the state were on campus for the annual Health Careers Fair, the largest event hosted by the department.
Students from nearly 100 schools were able to meet with employers and professional school representatives while learning more about UNK and its academic programs. They also participated in breakout sessions focusing on medical laboratory science, exercise science and nutrition, mental and behavioral health and nursing.
Hana Mach, a counselor at Wilcox-Hildreth Public School, brought three students to the event.
“Being in a rural area, I know we need more students to go into health careers and come back and serve our areas, because a lot of our people have to drive to get quality health care services,” she said.
Wilcox-Hildreth offers anatomy and physiology, plus a two-year health science class. The Health Careers Fair expanded on those classroom lessons by giving students a chance to explore a variety of careers while networking with professionals in the field.
Mach believes that exposure is “huge” for students.
“I think every experience we can give them is really important,” she said.
For employers, the Health Careers Fair was the perfect place to connect with their future talent pool.
“It’s great to kind of get our name out there,” said Barfknecht, who represented Kearney Regional Medical Center at the event.
The UNK senior from Hastings landed her internship after attending a campus career fair, so she understands how important these interactions can be.
“You just don’t know a lot of the options that are out there,” Barfknecht said.
Mandy Sand, who works in human resources at Lexington Regional Health Center, made the same point. The demand for health care workers extends well beyond doctors and nurses, she noted.
“You can be a physical therapist, but we also need physical therapy assistants. You can be a surgery nurse, but we also need scrub techs. There are so many levels within those departments that you just don’t know about or just aren’t talked about enough,” Sand said.
And, she added, all of these positions offer good starting wages and full benefits.
Events like the Health Careers Fair are part of UNK’s plan to create a “talent pipeline” that encourages Nebraska students to study and work in the state.
“We know we need to provide health care across the state,” Calahan said. “If we can do that here at UNK by creating exploratory programs for high school students who go down that path and come back and practice in rural Nebraska, then we’ve done our part. It’s a success.”