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State and local nursing shortage gets vital boost — more can be done

The state of Minnesota and the city of Marshall recently took important steps for growing the number of nurses and certified nursing assistants amidst a statewide shortage. This includes a CNA training course offered at the Marshall Avera Medical Center, made possible by an $88,000 grant received by Minnesota West from the MN Department of Health. The One Minnesota Budget passed this state session also includes $20 million over the next two years to support the “Drive for Five Workforce Fund”, to prepare Minnesotans to enter 5 of the most critical occupational categories, including the caring professions. These are vital local and state efforts, but even more can and should be done to attract, retain, and promote nurses and nursing assistants.

Health care and social assistance positions make up 7.5% of Minnesota’s total workforce. Home health and personal care aides make up the single largest occupation in Minnesota. But the industry has one of the highest job vacancies in the state, with over 45,000 high-demand job openings. In addition to providing more funding to attract and train new nursing candidates, we should also dig deeper and ask what accounts for shortages in nursing. Along with funding for training, we must also look to revalue, reward, and revamp this work so that it gets the respect it deserves, with a livable, family-sustaining wage, and a reasonable work-life balance.

Our society highly reveres doctors, but too often, nurses and others in the “pink-collar” work sector play second fiddle. American culture is steeped in values of independency, and accordingly, we tend to take for granted dependency care work, such as nursing, child, and elder care. The Covid-19 pandemic made abundantly clear the social value of this labor, as dedicated, exhausted and frazzled nurses worked alongside doctors to deal with the tidal wave of health emergencies. During those times social respect for nurses grew. But as Covid-19 recedes it’s easy to forget that most of us benefit from nursing care from the day we are born to the day we die. Nurses today not only care for the physical and emotional needs of patients, but do higher levels of medical work, along with filing reams of paperwork for insurance companies and state agencies.

So the second thing we can do to grow the nursing profession is to reward it better. Despite the high value of the work, nurses and teachers make far less compared to doctors and health care administrators. CNAs perform the incredibly difficult and intimate work of feeding, bathing, and bed-panning patients, but earn less or little more than those who work in the fast food sector. This compensation scale needs to change, and when it does, they will come.

Finally, we can work to reform the nursing profession to have a more reasonable work/life balance to reduce burn out and turn over. Nurses and nurse assistants face the dilemma of suffering burnout brought on by staff shortages, but in turn the prospect of overwhelming responsibilities likely discourages new candidates from entering the field. Fixing this is a challenge as medical needs cannot just be rearranged or reduced. But a commitment to flexible and reasonable work schedules, robust self-care options, as well as ample paid vacations, child care provisions, and other benefits, could make this demanding and demanded profession more attractive.

Providing greater funding for nurse and nurse assistant training is a step in the right direction for Minnesota. It signals the need to further address the underlying causes of the nursing shortages with even greater cultural and economic shifts. We owe it to nursing professionals and ourselves to revise the way we think about inevitable human dependency, and reform and rearrange occupational compensation to reflect the high social value of dependency care work such as nursing.

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