CNA shortage an age-old problem

CNA shortage an age-old problem

They take vital signs and help sick and elderly people with the functions of daily living. And they're in huge demand.

The need for certified nursing assistants is high and projected to continue growing along with the number of older adults — many of them aging alone, with nobody at home to help them.

While job opportunities for CNAs are plentiful at long-term care facilities, hospitals and home care agencies, it's hard work for relatively low pay. And the turnover is high.

For Petersen Health Care, a Peoria-based nursing home chain, keeping CNA jobs filled is a constant battle, said Greg Wilson, the company's senior vice president of operations.

"It's a buyer's market," he said.

There's no shortage of interest in CNA training programs in the area — among them at community colleges in Champaign and Danville and the Urbana Adult Education Center, according to leaders of those programs.

Many of the training vacancies wind up being filled by people heading to nursing school who either don't become CNAs — or they don't work as CNAs for long, Wilson and others said.

Not only are health and long-term care providers competing with each other to fill CNA vacancies, they're competing these days with other sectors of the economy for available people in the CNA pay range.

The median pay, nationally, for a CNA is $12.76 an hour, a rate some large retailers are fast approaching for their starting hourly wage. Both Target and Walmart have raised their starting pay to $11 an hour, and Target plans to boost its starting rate again in the spring to $12.

"The stronger economy is great for all of us as taxpayers and citizens, but as the wages increase across the business community, it puts a lot of pressure on our wages to increase," Wilson said. "And our Medicaid rate hasn't increased in a good 10 years."

While the state has nothing to do with nursing home salaries, it does set Medicaid reimbursement rates at long-term care facilities. That, in turn, affects what nursing homes — especially those with a lot of Medicaid residents — can pay their staffs, Wilson said.

About one-fourth of the CNA jobs at OSF Healthcare Heart of Mary Medical Center, Urbana, are currently vacant, according to Molly Nicholson, the hospital's chief nursing officer.

"We're never able to hire enough," she said.

Once a CNA herself, Nicholson said many nursing assistants start out, as she did, with plans to advance. Being a CNA allowed her to have a job in health care while she was studying to be a nurse and boosted her clinical experience when she graduated, she said.

These days, she sees many nursing assistants encouraged by their peers to further their education so they can earn more, Nicholson said, "but there is a great need for caregivers to assist the nurses at the bedside, and the nurses want that and appreciate that."


Baby boom

The CNA shortage is part of a larger impending crisis in the long-term care industry, in which the need for caregivers has steadily gained on the pool of available help.

The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to grow to 98 million by 2060 — more than double the number in that age group in 2016. In one decade alone, from 2020-2030, the number of older adults will grow by 18 million as the youngest baby boomers hit 65, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Meanwhile, many more thousands of CNAs and nurses are going to be needed — in this decade and those that will follow.

This is a big concern for long-term care providers, and one local communities ought to be paying attention to, according to Krista Borbely, human resources director at Clark-Lindsey Village, Urbana.

More young people need exposure to career opportunities in long-term care, she contended. Clark-Lindsey held a job fair recently, she said, and the results were disappointing in terms of how many applicants expressed interest in the jobs.

If long-term care facilities are already struggling to fill jobs, she wondered, what's going to happen down the road when there will be even more older adults in need of care?

"How are we going to do it in the future without enough people to do the work?" she asked.

Clark-Lindsey Village is already growing to meet increased need, Borbely said, and about 30 to 40 percent of its staff is made up of CNAs. For those staff members who work in jobs that don't involve patient care, such as housekeeping, Clark-Lindsey will even pay for their CNA training, she said.

Despite some of the job's drawbacks, Borbely said, there's a rewarding component to being a nursing assistant among people who have a talent for relationship building with residents over time.

"You have an opportunity of being part of their family," she said "You are the one they look forward to seeing."


Second career

Being a CNA isn't a revolving door for everyone.

Paulette Rebman, a CNA at Clark-Lindsey Village, Urbana, did her training at age 60, fulfilling a longtime dream to work in nursing after decades of providing home day care for children.

Now 65, she's cut back her hours to part-time, and continues to find the job rewarding.

"I love the interaction with the people," she said.

While she's happy where she is, Rebman said, a CNA can get a job any time, anywhere. It's a job that helps build confidence and people skills, and it's a good option to consider for students going from high school to the workforce, she said.

"If you become a CNA, you'll grow in a number of ways," Rebman promised.

As an older CNA who's semi-retired, Rebman has found she bonds easily with Clark-Lindsey's residents.

"The elders love me," she said. "When they tell me their arthritis is hurting them, I understand."



It takes about three months to complete CNA training, depending on the program.

Shelby May, the CNA program director at Parkland College, said Parkland graduates 50 to 60 new CNAs a semester, "and there are certainly jobs available for those students as soon as they finish the program."

While more people are needed to be CNAs, the job isn't for everyone, May said.

CNAs need to be caring, compassionate, dependable and responsible people, able to put the needs of other people before their own, May said.

"It is a job where you give 110 percent for the entire eight, 10 or 12 hours you are there," she said.

The work also takes a physical toll on the body over time, May said.

"It's a hard job. That's why it takes that caring and compassionate person to do that every day," she said. "I think CNAs don't get paid nearly as much as they're worth on the job. In many ways they're the backbone of the facility."