Kim Potter has dreamed of being a nurse for years, but her financial situation and lack of time forced that dream to the back burner. But a new program offered by Finger Lakes Community College has Potter hitting the books, and being paid to do it.
Working with Monroe Community College, Rochester Regional Health, RochesterWorks Inc., Rochester Educational Opportunity Center and Finger Lakes Works, FLCC is facilitating a training program that allows certified nurse assistants to go to school part-time and work part-time while receiving a stipend to cover what would be lost wages.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be a nurse and there was one point in time where I did go to college for one semester to become an RN, but it was just too difficult,” 46-year-old Potter said. “Because I carry the health benefits it was too difficult to go per diem and not have any benefits and be able to still work and go to school.”
Potter’s situation is not uncommon. As a CNA, Potter helps patients with health care needs under the supervision of a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse. As such, CNAs earn less than RNs and LPNs.
Statewide last year, New York’s more than 98,000 nursing assistants earned an average of $34,300 annually, compared with the nearly 47,000 LPNs, who earned $47,170, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
“One of the biggest barriers for students, especially this population of students, is the wage deficit in taking an LPN program,” said Marcia Lynch, FLCC director of workforce development. “An LPN program is very academic, very intense, so most students either cut down to part-time (employment) or a lot of students don’t work during the time that they take these full-time academic programs.”
To encourage and help CNAs reach their nursing goals, FLCC last year teamed with MCC and Genesee Community College to apply for an America’s Promise Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. A portion of the $6 million grant is being used to help fund the new CNA to LPN program.
“None of our students could afford to lose their wages. Most of them are working overtime to have a living wage, let alone have to cut into their wages,” Lynch said. “So Rochester Regional Health is supplying a stipend for the time that the students are in class so they don’t lose half of their wages while they’re taking class.”
The 23 CNAs in the inaugural class will work 20 hours a week and attend class 20 hours a week, but get paid for the full 40 hours they would have worked if they were not in school, she explained. Additionally, the tuition fee is being paid through the America’s Promise grant and the organizations that collaborated to launch the program.
The program was the brainchild of Lynch and Cathie Chabrier, Hill Haven Transitional Care Center administrator, who had worked together on various projects. Chabrier had mentioned that through training she had an abundance of CNAs but not enough LPNs.
“We talked about a couple of different models but the stipend is really what works for us,” Chabrier said. “We are asking for a commitment on the back end. We have asked our employees to agree that they’ll work for us for two years once they have their license as LPNs.”
The situation benefits both sides, she said.
“We’re investing in you, we want you to invest in us as your employer,” Chabrier said. “And we believe that’s a reasonable exchange for what we’re offering them.”
Of the 23 individuals taking the CNA to LPN course, 22 are employees of six Rochester Regional Health long-term care facilities, Chabrier noted. Within 10 days of posting information about the course, FLCC had nearly 100 candidates interested in the program.
Following an orientation, FLCC interviewed candidates that were then narrowed down based on their letters of reference and the interview.
“We had CNAs that have been CNAs 23 years, 17 years, 15 years and that have never had the opportunity to advance their career because they couldn’t afford to take the time off,” Lynch said.
Lee Koslow, RochesterWorks technical assistance and training manager, said the organization is a cheerleader for this type of program. The organization was able to commit some partial tuition funding for as many as 12 students in the initial class.
“This is the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “We’ve got such a persistent problem with poverty in the city of Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. One of the things that’s sorely needed is not just jobs at the entry level, but pathways for people to move up from those more entry level jobs to jobs that pay a self-sustaining wage.”
On the other hand, Koslow said, employers in the region have persistently unfilled and high-turnover jobs, and LPN is one job in which there is a critical shortage.
“When you get to solve both problems at the same time and it’s a win for both the worker and the employer, that’s the type of strategy that we’re looking to support, that we’re looking for it to succeed,” Koslow said. “This is the first of its kind, where an employer has stepped forward and said, ‘we want to dedicate significant resources to bringing in our lower-paid workers and getting them the skills that they need and supporting them so they can move up to that next level.’”
If the program succeeds, and Koslow is confident it will, the organizers hope it can be expanded and grow to include other employers that operate long-term care facilities.
“What our goal is, is to make this a model that we then can replicate for other facilities, other students that are in that living poverty wage that they just can’t get out of without a program like this,” Lynch said.
For Potter, who has been with Hill Haven a quarter of a century and who also cares for her elderly mother, the program fulfills all of her needs.
“I feel that as a nurse I will have the skills to be able to care for people better in another scope of practice that I’ve never been given the opportunity to have before,” Potter explained. “I want to be a nurse and I love caring for residents. My motto is caring is not just my occupation, it’s my way of life.”
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