Finding the next wave of Alaska’s life-savers
UAA School of Nursing student Krysta Byford goes over treatment plans with actor Danny Ashton Earll as he portrays a patient about to be discharged during a simulated patient care scenario in UAA’s Health Sciences Building Simulation Center.
It’s no revelation that the healthcare industry is experiencing an economic boon in the Last Frontier. Indeed, Alaska boasts the best average wages for several healthcare positions, including optometrists, pharmacists, dental hygienists, and general technologists and technicians. Healthcare employment has recently seen consistent increases—not many sectors in Alaska are seeing that trend. What isn’t common knowledge, however, is the process involved in filling the positions that fuel the growing demand for jobs.
The truth is that recruiting qualified employees is not as straightforward as one might think in such a “healthy” business environment.
It’s a journey in which future employees and prospective employers do eventually meet, but not without help from educational outreach and staffing agencies.
“We’re having a hard time finding talent that is qualified. Most businesses want people to have two years’ experience, three years’ experience. We’re getting a lot of people right out of college or right out of school,” says Kyle Thacker, client champion at Anchorage-based staffing agency Alaska Executive Search (AES).
According to Thacker, AES employer clients seek to fill positions with candidates who have a substantial amount of time in the field and who have practically applied their skill sets in real-life scenarios. After all, real lives are on the line.
The complication is that agencies like AES have a glut of Alaska-grown, soon-to-be employees just out of college or vocational school with little to no practical experience on their resumes.
So what is a graduate with a brand new degree and no prior work experience (at least in the medical field) to do?
It All Starts with School
The high demand/low supply situation has compelled employers like Providence Hospital to expand their searches to a national pool of talent.
“We do contract with travel nurses from staffing agencies to supplement our staffing while we are in the process of looking for permanent staff,” says Providence Senior Manager of Talent Acquisition Kathryn Wade.
“We have a wide variety of marketing, recruiting, and mission-aligned outreach programs designed to connect with new grads as well as experienced healthcare professionals locally and nationally to highlight career and growth opportunities with us.”
Professor Grace Leu-Burke instructs medical laboratory science student Robert Beacham as he examines microrganisms he has cultured during an assignment for Advanced Clinical Microbiology in UAA’s Health Sciences Building.
As far as boosting the numbers of those local prospects, Wade cites specific efforts to make that happen: in the state’s largest city, Providence works closely with educational institutions like the University of Alaska Anchorage (a campus that is located across the street from the hospital’s own campus) and Charter College to fill positions that are ideal fits for new graduates.
Dean and Vice Provost of UAA’s College of Health Jeff Jessee echoes the problem noted by Thacker, saying, “There’s nobody in that sweet spot who has had a few years of practical experience, meeting the requirements of what the employers are seeking.”
Jessee cites a situation in rural Alaska that illustrates what happens when sourcing “Outside” personnel becomes a logistical challenge. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) in Bethel relies heavily on out-of-state traveling nurses, but to entice those nurses to work in rural Western Alaska, “their nursing scheduling has gone to a seven-day-on, seven-day-off schedule so that these travelers can fly in, do their twelve-hour shifts for seven days, get on the plane and go back home,” he notes.
Jessee and UAA offered YKHC an alternative solution.
“There’s nobody in that sweet spot who has had a few years of practical experience, meeting the requirements of what the employers are seeking.”
“When we talked to the CEO, he said, ‘If you can get me to a tipping point where now it makes sense for me to move my scheduling back to a normal one [by having a locally-employed workforce], I’m all-in.’”
YKHC is just one rural provider on which the university is keeping a close eye in order to understand the staffing needs of local communities. It’s a crucial practice, as healthcare positions in rural Alaska require a particularly versatile range of skill sets; with fewer staffers, each doctor and nurse must be prepared for just about any scenario.
Dr. Marianne Murray, director of the UAA School of Nursing, notes that in addition to a large nursing program in Anchorage, the University of Alaska system has nursing schools in fourteen distance sites that include Bethel, Ketchikan, and Sitka. All of these locations have their benefits. Anchorage nursing graduates have the opportunity to gain work experience in one specific department of a large hospital, and nurses in more removed locations such as Valdez can see everything from infant deliveries to heart attacks in one day.
“We call them ‘frontier generalists,’” says Murray. “They really are filling a need for these frontier hospitals, critical access hospitals that need a nurse. They can do everything from being with somebody when they die to being next to somebody when they give birth.”
Dental Hygiene student Mandi Roberts works on a patient in the Dental Programs Clinic in UAA’s Allied Health Sciences Building.
In recent years, UAA bolstered the resources and curriculum needed to better prepare students for patient interaction through simulated exercises using both real-life actors and high-tech mannequins.
“There’s actually a control room with one-way mirrors and these high-tech mannequins, and it looks like a hospital room. You can make it look like a surgery, intensive care, [or] the emergency room. A computerized system runs the students through simulated medical situations and gives them a chance to boldly apply their knowledge in a safe environment,” says Jessee.
This type of curriculum is especially helpful to frontier generalists; though they have to be ready for anything, they’re not guaranteed to see any specific medical situation at a clinic.
Every organization, healthcare and otherwise, is a collection of personalities. So employers need to find candidates with more than just the required certificates, clinical experience, and other technical qualifications that a position demands. Soft skills like the ability to communicate, problem-solve, and collaborate with others are critical traits in any position. Sometimes, an ideal fit won’t necessarily have the perfect mix of technical and interpersonal savvy but may just need an opportunity to show his or her workplace value. Those “diamonds in the rough” are an AES specialty.
“We have the time and energy to put into not only screening everybody but also giving the applicants their fair shot,” says Drew Sharp, medical recruiter at AES. “With those candidates that might be fresh out of school, have an amazing personality, and are really driven to learn their position, we provide that extra boost they need and deserve to get into that first job.
“If they’re not being considered enough by direct-hire positions, we give them temp opportunities so they can show that they have that skill set that they’re claiming to have.”
As a client champion advocating for candidates to potential employers, Thacker adds: “That’s where working with a staffing agency can help you because we do have those established relationships with people in the community. We can reach out to them and they tend to trust our opinion.”
As the economy in the Lower 48 continues to prosper, it may be the perfect opportunity for Alaskan talent to leverage those kind of relationships. Thacker says there’s been a drop in out-of-state applications through AES.
According to Jessee, sourcing jobs locally is superior to recruiting traveling personnel not just from a logistics standpoint but from a culture standpoint as well. UAA tailors its health programs in a way that allows students to go from an associate degree all the way up to a master’s or PhD. In this way, Jessee hopes to see a rise in supervisory positions filled by locals instead of travelers so that all staff share a common context.
Culture cannot be understated when it comes to staffing the right people in any business, let alone healthcare.
Sharp explains it this way, “You’re almost never going to hear [from employers], ‘They were unqualified.’ They wouldn’t have hired them. So then that just doesn’t really eliminate anybody. But what you hear is, ‘This person made the work environment toxic.’ In order to become a doctor, a registered nurse, or any highly-trained medical professional, they are trained how to save your life but not necessarily how to make you a happier person.”
In response to a need for employees skilled in human interaction, UAA has recently revised its curriculum.
“The human part has really been left out,” says Murray. “So standardized patient exercises help us break down their soft skills. We’re moving towards a more 360 view of our students.”
The process has applications in other fields, like social work. Jessee and Murray hope these skills can provide solutions to issues such as the high turnover rate of child protection workers.
In terms of overall trends, Wade and Providence anticipate a sustained future demand for nurses, while Jessee also points to the countless other positions that will be required to support the entire scope of care, from behavioral health to imaging technicians and billing staff, and a bevy of other positions.
The industry is ready to fill positions now. With an abundance of in-state talent, it ultimately boils down to a candidate’s readiness and the employer’s willingness to provide opportunities to newcomers.
“You’re almost never going to hear [from employers], ‘They were unqualified.’ They wouldn’t have hired them. So then that just doesn’t really eliminate anybody. But what you hear is, ‘This person made the work environment toxic.’ In order to become a doctor, a registered nurse, or any highly-trained medical professional, they are trained how to save your life but not necessarily how to make you a happier person.”
Architecture & Engineering Special Section + Small Business
In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.