Letter: Addressing the healthcare worker shortage with old and new methods

Maggie Volz

Iowa’s Registered Apprenticeship Program continues to lead the nation in implementing innovative solutions for workforce education. Governor Kim Reynolds recently announced eight recipients of the Iowa Health Careers Registered Apprenticeship Grant Program, which will support 22 school districts — 16 of which are launching their first registered apprenticeship programs — and training and education for 450 apprentices.

The Iowa Registered Apprenticeship Program, also known as Earn and Learn, was established to help address the state’s shortage of skilled workers for healthcare roles like Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), manufacturing positions, transportation jobs, and more.

Apprentices receive classroom instruction and paid on-the-job experience, while employers benefit from an expanded workforce and talent pipeline. According to the program, “91 percent of apprentices who completed their apprenticeship are still employed nine months later. “

“Not only will this registered apprenticeship program combine the best available technology with hands-on experience for high school students, but it will create long-term pathways that help keep career-ready young Iowans in our state,” Governor Reynolds said in a press release.

Some of that technology includes virtual reality (VR) training and simulation systems for Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), with plans to expand VR to other industry skilled trades training.

Adding VR training to the Registered Apprenticeship Program isn’t just an advancement in educational technology: it also reduces costs and expands educational opportunities for in-demand career pathways.

VR creates a blended instructional approach that frees up instructor time and reduces the need for expensive lab setups for training, lowering training costs while providing accessible, sustainable learning opportunities. VR is also portable, which means students and employers in remote classrooms and rural areas can more readily take advantage of this cutting-edge educational technology.

State lawmakers are excited about the possibilities of virtual reality training programs in Iowa. Rep. Christina Bohannan visited the Career Academy of Pella in April 2022, where she met with a CNA Basic 75 class that piloted an early version of VR training for CNAs.

During her visit, Rep. Bohannan had an opportunity to talk with students about their experiences with the virtual reality tool and to try it out herself. “I was excited to experience first-hand VRSim’s innovative virtual reality program, which allows Iowa high school students experiential certified nursing assistant training in a low-risk environment,” Bohannan said.

She added, “The Career Academy of Pella offers a great opportunity for high school students to learn about and experience possible career options. It helps them to visualize their future and can give them a leg up in the job market. This is a great example of innovative public education options benefiting Iowa kids.”

Addressing the skills shortage in Iowa is a significant concern for the healthcare industry and other skilled professions. Iowa is ranked 45th in the nation for healthcare provider-to-patient ratios (according to the 2019 State Physician Workforce Data Report) and 48th in the nation for nurse pay. A projection from Iowa Workforce Development shows that Iowa needs to staff 9,000 new caregiver jobs each year to keep up with demand.

These are the gaps that the Registered Apprenticeship Program hopes to close through the addition of virtual reality training tools. As Rep. Bohannan said, “This should encourage more students to consider nursing as a career, which will help with Iowa’s healthcare shortage.”