Alaska health care employers cannot keep their organizations fully staffed – State of Reform

There are not enough health care workers to fill the demand for services in Alaska, and job vacancies in the industry are increasing.

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Representatives from three health care organizations discussed the state’s workforce shortage during a Monday meeting. Alaska State Hospitals and Nursing Home Association (ASHNHA) President and CEO Jared Kosin said the association commissioned Rain Coast Data to conduct a health care workforce statistical analysis of the industry. The report was finalized in November 2021, and it showed some concerning trends.

According to the report, Alaska health care workers earned $2.7 billion in 2019, which accounted for 11 percent of all state wages. The industry had a projected job growth of 7.6 percent over the next 10 years, with a projected 5,000 new jobs, which was more than any other sector.

“These are good-paying jobs,” Kosin said. “On average, you’re looking at a $65,744 wager. Health care jobs pay well because they create a career. The problem is there’s simply not enough people entering the workforce. Job demand in Alaska severely exceeds supply.”

The industry has 6,300 job openings each year, with more than 1,400 recruits needed annually just to fill registered nurse positions alone, Kosin said. Hospitals are the largest health care employer in Alaska, and employ 35 percent of the total health care workforce. Registered nurses are the dominant position, and receive 18 percent of all health care wages. Employers frequently have to recruit workers from other states to fill health care positions, however.

“You have to,” Kosin said. “We don’t have enough people in-state.”

Non-residents fill 11.3 percent of the state’s health care jobs, while 21 percent of its key hospital and nursing home positions are vacant. But non-residents often eventually leave the state, which sparks a need for employers to focus on developing talent from the local pool, Kosin said.

“The takeaway you need to know is developing the talent pipeline for the health care workforce is one of the best investments we can make for Alaska,” he said. “Our pipeline is underperforming so severely, we really can only go up. We’re so bad right now that we can only improve. The challenges are immense. It’s been a problem for years.”

Shelley Ebenal is the CEO at Foundation Health Partners, which is the largest employer in Fairbanks. She said it faces workforce challenges as well, as it currently has 192 positions unfilled. Employee turnover is at its highest point in the past 20 years, at 30 percent, she said.

“The depth of the talent pool is nonexistent,” Ebenal said. “If employees leave, we’re in trouble. Getting people from outside is a great solution, until they don’t stay. It’s really hard to recruit.”

Preston Simmons is the CEO at Providence Alaska, which serves four different jurisdictions in the state, and is the state’s largest employer. He said Providence currently sees 25 percent fewer applicants than it did in 2019. It has a vacancy rate of 16.7 percent, and there are 782 open positions there.

“The workforce challenges now are the most challenging I’ve ever seen,” Simmons said. “We can’t keep pace with vacancies. We have fewer applicants than what we had pre-COVID; a lot of the industry is burnt out.”

A lack of available housing also presents challenges to workforce retention, Simmons said.

“In Kodiak, there were 10 individuals who were brought into that community [to work]but they couldn’t find a house, and had to leave,” he said.

Providence officials have attempted to solidify its workforce by ramping up engagement and retention efforts, Simmons said. It pays thousands of dollars for new employee referrals, and staff is reviewing pay wages for high turnover roles, and recommending changes.

“We need to invest more in our universities, schools, and basic education,” Simmons said. “We created a medical assistant apprenticeship program. We created some certified nursing pop-up programs. We’re trying to be innovative. We’ve created a community health care program. We also created an addiction fellowship program.”

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