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Northland Community and Technical College works to quickly train Minnesota National Guard in nursing

Nursing instructors at Northland received word on Friday, Nov. 19, that 16 Minnesota State colleges would be asked to train national guardsmen, to temporarily alleviate a severe shortage of workers in long-term care facilities, where industry advocates say workers are facing burnout. The following Monday they got the go-ahead to streamline their course. Jodi Stauss, dean of Northland’s health, public services and technical programs, and instructors Amanda Arneson and Karen Znajda, took that week to organize the course, not including the Thanksgiving holiday.

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Specialist William Nichols observes, while two Minnesota National Guardsmen practice hands-on training at Northland Community and Technical College, on Friday, Dec. 3. Submitted / Northland Community and Technical College

For nursing instructors at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, it was a mad dash to create a crash course for Minnesota National Guard members.

Nursing instructors at Northland received word on Friday, Nov. 19, that 16 Minnesota State colleges would be asked to train national guardsmen to temporarily alleviate a severe shortage of workers in long-term care facilities, where industry advocates say workers are facing burnout. The following Monday they got the go-ahead to streamline their course. Jodi Stauss, dean of Northland’s health, public services and technical programs, and instructors Amanda Arneson and Karen Znajda, took that week to organize the course, not including the Thanksgiving holiday.

They didn’t have a lot of time. The guardsmen arrived for training on Saturday, Nov. 27, and they put in 11-hour days that weekend in the classroom.

“That's all on our faculty, they have been fantastic,” Stauss said. “... They were able to take things they've already done and really condense and combine it.”

Nineteen guardsmen pulled from locations across the state are training to be certified nursing assistants at NCTC. When their course finishes on Sunday, Dec. 5, they will be sent to long-term care facilities statewide, where they will work for two weeks. On Nov. 22, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz activated 400 guardsmen for the effort, and training is ongoing at 16 college campuses across the state.

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Normally, students who enroll in NCTC’s CNA program have 16 weeks to do it, if they are looking to earn college credit. The course can also be completed in a month for people not looking for a college transcript, and need to prepare for the Minnesota Board of Health certification test. Northland instructors whittled the course down to 75 hours over nine days, in a combination of classroom learning and hands-on training.

But it’s been a fast pace of instruction, practice and testing for Northland’s newest students.

“Kudos to these national guardsmen, because it's a lot to take in and process,” Stauss said.

On Friday, Dec. 3, Znajda was in the nursing lab guiding the guardsmen through range-of-motion exercises. The guardsmen worked in small groups, with one acting as a patient, while the other took on the nurse role and a third person observed. Znajda said organizing the course was stressful, given the short time frame they had to work on it. But once in the classroom, she said guardsmen were ready to work and learn.

“I've really enjoyed teaching these guys because they've been a good group,” Znajda said. “I come in here and I'll say, ‘OK I want you guys to start practicing this,’ and boom, they start practicing.”

Guardsmen ready for the mission

Specialist William Nichols, from Paynesville, Minnesota, west of St. Cloud, said the training is well-organized, and he is pleased it is going so smoothly. Nichols said he learned he would be called up four days before Thanksgiving, but when the call came he was ready to go.

“If they need help, they help,” Nichols said. “That's the bottom line, that's why I joined.”

According to Capt. Zachary Eich, once the course is complete the guardsmen will have to take the certification test. They won’t be doing it at Northland though, the rules require the test be administered by an instructor not involved in a student’s training.

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Eich said the guardsmen don’t yet know where they will be sent to work, and while it could be anywhere in the state, leadership is working with the members to find locations not far from their homes.

Critical need for workers

But no matter where the guardsmen are sent, the staffing shortage in Minnesota’s longterm care facilities is omnipresent. Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, said there are 23,000 vacant positions across the state. There were staffing shortages prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but its onset tipped the scales in a drastic manner.

“It's as bad as it's ever been,” Cullen said.

Workers at longterm care facilities, Cullen said, have been working in the “eye of the storm” for 21 months, and are burned out. The abundance of jobs both outside and within the industry, some at competing facilities with higher starting wages, are drawing people away. Cullen said longterm care facilities are now competing with retail outlets like Target, which announced in August it will begin paying for employees' tuition at select colleges.

At the end of November, a federal judge granted an injunction which stopped a national vaccine mandate for health care workers, but, Cullen noted, it could be overturned and adds an element of uncertainty to the industry. Should it quickly be reinstated, some workers won’t have the time to get the required shots.

Still, Cullen said she is grateful for the national guard’s assistance, though she called the temporary help a “Band-Aid on a gushing wound.” Facilities across the state have requested help from the soon-to-be-trained guardsmen. Cullen said it’s a possibility more guardsmen will need to be called up, should initiatives like barrier-free onboarding of new workers not yield results.

Ultimately, filling open positions is a matter of money, money some facilities may not have. Cullen said she is looking to the Minnesota Legislature to address wages in the industry.

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“We need to boost up our wages,” she said. “That's the longer-term solution, is to make it a livable wage.”

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