In unison, eight college students kick off their shoes, climb into hospital beds and pull up the covers. But it’s not cause for alarm – no one’s feeling feverish. Rather, a morning nursing assistant class is underway at Central Oregon Community College, and the day’s training includes an exercise that pairs skill development with integrating a patient’s perspective.

“Those of you in bed, you will have had a stroke,” explained Kari McDaniel, director of COCC’s nursing assistant program, coaching the partnered-up students on the scenario. “Make sure you let your partner know which side your ‘strong’ side is.”

Student Chelsea Bartlett, playing the part of a nursing assistant, dons rubber gloves and gets into the spirit of the exercise. “I picked you out a cute outfit,” she said to classmate Danita Sullivan, placing a fresh hospital gown with a tropical print at the foot of the bed. Together, they navigate the tasks of getting a stroke patient ready for the day — from changing clothes to cleaning eyeglasses – both getting the chance to see the entire equation.

For Bartlett, who’s getting some experience while she applies to the college’s nursing program, and for Sullivan, who’s forging a new path after a stint in retail, the CNA-1 training is a fast way to jumpstart a career. In a few short weeks, their training will take them to workplace settings at both St. Charles Bend and Bend Transitional Care, where clinical site tours will offer a glimpse into short- and long-term care environments. By December, having completed their coursework and passing the certification exam, they can be up and running as entry-level nursing assistants.

It’s a career that can be put in motion in a single term, though many students opt to complete all three terms of the nursing assistant curriculum, plus certification, for maximum capability and employability. Last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean wage for a certified nursing assistant in Oregon was $33,230.

“These are not ceiling jobs,” explained Wendi Worthington, COCC’s health careers outreach and recruitment coordinator, who is helping to connect career-seekers with the college’s dental assisting, health information management, nursing, nursing assistant, paramedicine, pharmacy technician (predominantly online) and medical assisting programs. “For example, you can come in as an entry-level medical assistant and work your way up to all sorts of interesting things, like running clinics.”

Worthington’s own job is brand-new. The grant-funded position aligns the needs of three separate but interdependent audiences: COCC’s health industry programs; individuals looking for career direction; and, the clinics and practices in perpetual need of well-trained medical workers.

While the college has actively promoted its health career programs in the past – to groups like regional high school students – this new dedicated job is spreading the message on a much broader scale.

“I’ve been working with many different community organizations,” said Worthington. “I’m going to be working with Juntos for Latinx students. I’ll be talking to students in our adult basic skills classes. I was just at Bend High.” Whether it’s making an announcement on a school PA system, traveling to John Day for a career event, or meeting one-on-one with individuals, she’s finding avenues – large and small – to reach varied audiences.

“I come from that mindset of helping people realize that there are college opportunities for everyone, whether it’s right out of high school or a stay-at-home parent wanting to go back into the workforce,” said the former nurse whose own gateway into health care was an EMT course. “These programs are relatively short-term to get yourself into an educated, high-demand field where you have marketable skills. These fields can launch you.”

That “launch” aspect is exciting stuff to Heather Ficht. As the executive director of East Cascades Works, a workforce development nonprofit that spans 10 counties in the region, Ficht represents one of two agencies that secured the three-year grant for COCC. “We brought together about a dozen business leaders from the health care sector to better understand their workforce needs and challenges,” she said of the grant’s backstory. “Immediately it emerged that we lack a robust homegrown talent pipeline of trained and certified health care workers.” Part of the objective, she added, is an emphasis on diversity. “It’s not just one target audience, but myriad audiences.”

The other agency supporting the effort is the Central Oregon Health Council. Its leader, Donna Mills, describes their focus as an “eyes-and-ears” approach to community improvement, and presently they are working on projects like addressing the regional child care crunch to free up more eager workers. While Mills sees health care jobs as a cornerstone to the community, she also knows how they can positively impact the individual. “I have friends who were medical assistants who became doctors,” she said.

Recent COCC graduate Lexi Hoeffner, who works at Bend Dental Group, is setting off on a new path as a dental assistant. And beyond the reward of putting her interests into action, there’s added meaning as well. “I’ve always loved anatomy and helping people, so dental assisting seemed like a good fit,” she shared. “The very best thing about my job is being able to help people change their lives.”

For more information on any of COCC’s health career programs, including its veterinary tech and massage therapy programs, contact Wendi Worthington at 541-383-7713. Program information sessions are held at the college monthly.

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