Saturday, April 20, 2024

NH Endowment grants $22.3M to 4 entities for collective healthcare pipeline

UNCW chancellor Aswani Volety, Novant chief nursing officer Amy Akers, New Hanover Community Endowment CEO William Buster, CFCC president Jim Morton, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce CEO Natalie English and NHCS superintendent Charles Foust detail their collaborative efforts to build a local healthcare pipeline with $22.3 million from the New Hanover Community Endowment. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Collaboration and strategic recruitment are the key messages touted by the partnership of four local institutions to address healthcare employment shortages in the region.

READ MORE: Endowment doles out $53M to more than 30 local organizations

As the largest recipient of this year’s New Hanover Community Endowment funding, the cohort of Cape Fear Community College, UNCW, New Hanover County Schools and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce are launching a talent pipeline program with $22.3 million.

“For us, the endowment, this is exactly the kind of thing we want to invest in,” New Hanover Community Endowment CEO William Buster said at a Monday press conference. “No change happens without collaboration.”

He said it’s more than just funding for jobs; it’s about “maintaining homegrown talent.”

According to research projections at the UNC Chapel Hill Cecil G. Sheps Center, by 2033 North Carolina could face shortages of around 12,500 registered nurses and 5,000 licensed practical nurses, along with other fields such as respiratory therapists and nurse aides.

The three educational organizations, with support from the chamber, began working together on how to develop solutions earlier this year.

To proactively tackle the gap, NHCS plans to increase pathways available to K-12 students while CFCC and UNCW will expand degree offerings in the healthcare field. The two colleges also will increase enrollment in current courses — such as practical nursing and associates and bachelor’s degrees in nursing — while providing additional wraparound students for financial stability.

“This funding will help expedite our plans because funding is tough,” CFCC president Jim Morton said. “That’s what it’s gonna take to meet these challenges in the New Hanover County nursing field.”

To launch the healthcare pipeline, practical and hands-on learning will start at the K-12 level by exposing kids to more career options in the healthcare industry.

“Oftentimes students only look at it through the lens of a nurse or a doctor,” NHCS superintendent Charles Foust said. “There are so many other professionals in the hospital and healthcare arena they don’t even know about.”

He pointed to the business and marketing side of healthcare, as well as pharmacy technicians, for example.

To steer kids toward additional opportunities in the medical world, NHCS is dedicating its portion of the endowment funds, $1.7 million, to develop a hands-on learning lab. In partnership with Paxton Patterson Lab — program providing career-ready curriculum — NHCS students can gain practical experience in many avenues, from biomedical engineering and medical imagery, to therapeutic services and mental health — to help them figure out their interests.

“We’re able to introduce our kids to a medical field that widens their scope, embraces medicine, embraces business, embraces people,” Foust said.

He said the initiative is in line with NHCS’ strategic plan to grow CTE programs by 40%.

The two colleges are receiving the bulk of the collaborative endowment money, at around $10.2 million each to grow their nursing and allied healthcare programs.

CFCC and UNCW are each proposing an $8.6-million, three-year plan to increase capacity in nursing and healthcare programs by growing enrollment, recruiting more underrepresented populations and enacting a holistic admissions process. 

The goal is to encourage New Hanover County youth to pursue healthcare degrees at CFCC and UNCW and provide support to them ensuring employees remain locally and contribute to the regional economy. 

“You, as a student, when you’re graduating, you want to feel that sense of pride and belonging in this area,” UNCW chancellor Aswani Volety said. “Have opportunities lined up and work with your colleagues in a cohort model — that’s what keeps you here.”

Endowment funds must be used in New Hanover County, so the program is aimed specifically at retaining locally trained talent here, even if participants come from outside southeastern North Carolina.

“We do a phenomenal job recruiting students, we do an amazing job training them, but we don’t necessarily retain them,” Volety said.

According to previous Port City Daily reporting, UNCW’s cohort of nursing students is around 50% outside southeastern North Carolina. When students graduate, many return to their hometowns to pursue a career.

UNCW’s head of College of Health and Human Services, Dean Jack Watson II, told PCD in August, he’s tasked with cultivating passionate students and engaging them to fill the employment voids that currently exist, as well those expected in the future. Part of that is through ensuring students are placed in local clinical rotations to build relationships in the community.

At the press conference, chamber CEO and president Natalie English said there are about 44 healthcare facilities in the region that will employ students graduating from one of CFCC’s and UNCW’s programs. It’s the chamber’s job to partner with private businesses to build those relationships. It also encourages employees to stay locally by promoting the region as an attractive place to live.

“Our role here in Wilmington is to make sure businesses have the capacity to grow and have access to the talent they need,” English said.

As a hub for the three education institutions to remain on track, the chamber also plans to be the “anchor” for the partnership. Using $250,000 of the funds, it will manage staffing needs beyond nursing and monitor success of the collaborative program.

As part of its role in recruiting talent, the chamber is spearheading a strategy to develop affordable housing for nursing students and nurses. New Hanover County has an estimated median home value of $312,103 and average rent of $1,108 — both above the state average by 42.7% and 19.2% respectively, according to a housing assessment released by the county.

Providing a “cohort” living situation would not only engage them in a sense of community but also provide a reasonably priced place to live. The details are still being brainstormed, English said.

Buster explained the endowment intentionally chose not to fund any housing grants during this cycle because he saw too many applications that could be better “woven together.” However, he met with 30 leaders in the housing community Monday prior to the conference to kickstart a conversation on a collaborative approach to affordable housing in 2024.

Both Volety and Morton spoke to additional struggles many students face and how the endowment money will help remove barriers. Some are not able to afford higher education while also working full-time jobs and caring for family simultaneously. The balance can be difficult to maintain.

Morton announced CFCC plans to expand its free childcare program launched last fall and funded with $250,000 from the endowment plus a generous donation. From 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., students who are also parents to children ages 2 to 12, can drop off their kids while at school. By January, the goal is to double the capacity of the program to assist additional students.

The service will be moved into the former Bank of America building, at 319 N. Front St., purchased by the county last year for CFCC to expand its allied health programs. Morton said the first floor, as well as portions of the second and third, have already been renovated as part of a $14-plus million endeavor.

CATCH UP: County’s building purchase for CFCC is aimed at the nursing shortage. Here’s how it could help.

Assisting with childcare is just one facet of supporting students in their career paths. Morton said sometimes up to 40% of students who start the rigorous nursing program drop out before completion due to financial struggles or the difficulty balancing multiple jobs plus coursework. Part of the endowment funding awarded this year will cover emergency money for students in need — such as for car repairs to get to school — as well as housing support and additional wraparound services for easier access to education.

Along with the financial support students can receive from the endowment funds, Novant announced its commitment to boost the efforts with another $10 million investment over five years. 

Novant’s funds will increase the number of trained healthcare professionals in New Hanover County by offering scholarships and training opportunities.

“This strategic investment is designed to jumpstart the addition of licensed clinical team members who are positioned to meet the region’s healthcare needs,” Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Amy said at the conference.

While she said the details of how the scholarships will be rolled out and who will be eligible are still unclear, they would be applicable to both CFCC and UNCW students.

Novant Health, which operates the only full-scale hospital in a seven-county region, is familiar with the consequences of understaffing. NHRMC was at risk of losing its Medicare license in summer 2022 due to management’s inability to provide adequate staffing. 

Novant’s efforts to infuse additional funds into the talent pipeline will aid in its personal goals to increase staffing. It will also bolster scholarship opportunities already available. In April, CFCC launched a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $1 million to support nursing scholarships. The school intends to triple its nursing associate degree program — currently 60 to 75 graduates annually — by 2026.

However, as noted at Monday’s press conference, nursing is not the only position lacking in the area. Novant’s $10-million commitment will also be used to increase receptors — trained professionals willing to teach students — in the healthcare field and increase the capacity of its simulation program by size and scope.

“This is just the beginning,” English said. “We’ve come up with some really amazing recommendations and solutions we believe will make a major dent in our challenges in regards to healthcare employment.”

Morton, who called the endowment announcement an “early Christmas gift,” also credited the commissioners for having the “vision” to utilize proceeds from the sale of the hospital to Novant to support transformational change in the community.

In its second grant cycle, the endowment is awarding $53 million over the next three years with 19 strategic grants on improving workforce pipeline, enhancing childhood education and addressing healthcare access. An additional $1.4 million is being given to 14 nonprofit organizations for one-time nonrenewable grants to support their programs.

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