Healthcare is one of the largest industries in Rhode Island. It represents about 20 percent of the state’s work force. And the $3 billion sector is expected to grow.
But many of those jobs are poorly paid, and the state is scrambling to fill a predicted need for workers.
The young people at the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College are all training to become nurses. That’s made immediately apparent by the uniform all the students are wearing: medical scrubs. In her navy blue scrubs, Junior Fatu Ndiaye says she hopes to work in obstetrics and gynecology.
“I’m the oldest of seven, so I’ve always been around kids, it’s always been something I wanted to do,” said Ndiaye. “And in my family, we have a lot of people who that are sick, and I’ve always wanted to take care of people.”
This charter high school in Providence offers standard high school classes, along with hands-on healthcare training.
“We learn all the 25 skills necessary to become a CNA,” said Ndiaye. “So every skill we go through it one by one. She shows us it, we repeat it over and over again until we learn it and memorize off the top of our heads.”
When she’s done, Ndiaye will have the training to become a Certified Nursing Assistant – someone who provides basic care, such as bathing, dressing, and feeding patients. If she does, Ndiaye and her peers will be helping to fill a projected nursing shortage in Rhode Island.
“The healthcare workforce is aging,” said Nurses Institute Principal Colleen Hitchings. “And we know that as they age out we need to fill those positions.”
But Ndiaye can only expect to make about $14 dollars an hour as a CNA in Rhode Island. If she becomes a registered nurse, the pay jumps to about $30 an hour. That’s why Nurses Institute principal Hitchings hopes her students will continue onto college.
“The thing to understand is the CNA, for us, is not the endgame,” said Hitchings. “So we’re really interested in producing professional nurses at the Bachelor of Science level and higher.”
Nurses with advanced skill sets will be in particularly high demand, for work in surgical wards or intensive care units said industry expert Chris Matteson.
“You have a clinical track, like nurses, CNAs, RNs, that are always increasing, but now we’re seeing that they need to up their game, and start to include acute care skills,” said Matteson.
Skills like the ability to handle emergency room nursing challenges. Matteson heads the nonprofit Stepping Up, which works to bolster the healthcare industry in the state. And he says nursing isn't the only area expanding in Rhode Island.
“We’re also seeing community health workers, peer-recovery specialists that are starting to grow within the industry.”
However Matteson says he expects to see a leveling off of in certain parts of the industry, including in the more specialized sectors of medicine.
“We’ll be able to forecast, at least in the next couple of quarters, some increase in demand of some of the admin roles and clinical roles, like nursing and CNAs, but for specialty we’re really going to take a step back and wait until we see what happens,” said Matteson
That’s because the future of the Affordable Care Act is uncertain. The federal law mandates that people get insured. It provides free preventative care. Matteson worries a repeal of the law could slow the industry’s growth if people get less preventative care and use emergency room more.
“[For] ER staff there’s a lot of pressure on them to see a lot of patients every single day,” said Matteson. “And so with those changes we could see a huge influx in the amount of people that are going to ER centers, because they’re not able to see their primary care physician because their health insurance doesn’t cover a certain piece of that.”
That influx would put greater burden on the state’s already-struggling hospital system, which could lead to less hiring of much needed staff, as an older generation of workers gets ready to retire.