Soapbox

To fill health care jobs, workers need flexibility to take classes

Respiratory therapy students Eliana Arroyo-Canella, left, and Kristina Rozynski, center, are instructed by Bonnie Hunt, professor and program director at Modesto Junior College. Community colleges are key to training health care workers in California.
Respiratory therapy students Eliana Arroyo-Canella, left, and Kristina Rozynski, center, are instructed by Bonnie Hunt, professor and program director at Modesto Junior College. Community colleges are key to training health care workers in California. Hechinger Report

When Jevry Norimarna emigrated from Indonesia to California, he wanted a career as a health care professional. He first enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program and later became an electrocardiogram technician at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. While holding down that job, he also entered the respiratory therapy program at Skyline College in San Bruno.

Norimarna graduated with high honors in 2010 and started earning twice as much as before. He was helped by a supervisor who accommodated his class schedule and an employer-union sponsored education fund that supplemented his income as his work hours decreased.

He is just one Californian who overcame the challenges of being a full-time worker and student. To meet the needs of our health care system over the next decade, we will have to train 400,000 health care workers in jobs that are changing due to technology.

That will require some major changes in the education system, mostly adapting to working adults, who don’t have the same flexibility as full-time students.

Thankfully, the California Community Colleges are working to adjust. For decades, the 113-campus system has been the best place for working adults who want to advance their careers. The board of governors is to vote Monday to implement 25 recommendations from a task force made up of industry, government, faculty and student leaders. We support all 25 recommendations, but want to focus on four that we believe will do the most for workers.

First, improve coordination of technical training programs across campuses. Now, many technical classes require colleges to purchase expensive equipment. If campuses could share the equipment, or offer courses at just one location, it would reduce some of that cost and increase access.

A second reform is to expedite updates to classroom instruction. Technology and research is constantly changing, and yet updating the curriculum can take as long as 18 months. If colleges are going to be more nimble and meet fast-changing job needs, that process will need to be cut to six months.

Third, stable funding must be established. During economic downturns, technical training programs are often the first to be cut – as happened during the latest recession – despite their benefits to laid-off workers.

Finally, there need to be more evening, weekend and online technical classes. That will allow more flexibility for workers and provide an alternative to private training programs that often cost considerably more and are of lower quality.

By implementing all the recommendations, California can ensure that its community colleges are ready to prepare the needed health care workforce. Such a commitment could motivate all full-time workers to improve their lives through education.

Rebecca Miller is director of workforce development for SEIU-UHW, a union of 85,000 California health care workers.

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