Can the Rural Workforce Crisis Be Solved?

Robyn's Read | November 13, 2016

There’s a rural workforce crisis brewing in the field of long-term services and supports (LTSS). Robyn Stone saw that crisis up close during a recent trip to Midwest for the LeadingAge Nebraska fall conference. And she thinks it's serious.

The crisis isn’t just affecting nursing homes. It’s creeping into the home care sector as well. And it’s seriously impacting the ability of our members to recruit and retain qualified workers to provide essential services and supports to the growing population of rural elders.

The situation is bad, and it’s getting worse. And it’s not just a Nebraska problem.

Workforce shortages are affecting rural communities across this country.

I firmly believe that, if left unchecked, the crisis will soon spread to many of our urban and suburban care settings as well.

A RURAL, URBAN, AND SUBURBAN CRISIS 

LeadingAge is aware of and concerned about the coming workforce crisis.

That’s why we’ve made workforce issues a major strategic objective of our organization.

And that’s why we recently sent LeadingAge members in rural, urban, and suburban areas an important Workforce Survey that I hope you will complete.

FACTORS AFFECTING THE RURAL WORKFORCE CRISIS

Why are Nebraska providers finding themselves in such a precarious position? There are a lot of reasons.

  • The state’s unemployment rate is a very low 3%. Low unemployment means a shrinking pool of potential workers, and more competition among all employers for those workers. 
  • Young people are leaving Nebraska’s rural communities to find more opportunities in cities like Lincoln and Omaha. That migration shrinks the rural labor pool even further.
  • Nebraska’s rural communities are aging rapidly. More local residents than ever are in need of services and supports.

ARE THERE SOLUTIONS TO THE WORKFORCE CRISIS?

LeadingAge Nebraska members are acutely aware of the crisis that is unfolding before their very eyes. And they’re thinking seriously about possible solutions. During my workforce session at the LeadingAge Nebraska conference, I talked with providers about several potential approaches.

First, providers need strong retention plans that identify innovative strategies that will help convince older workers to stay in the LTSS field for longer. Those strategies might include offering job sharing arrangements or part-time work, or designing new, less physically taxing jobs, for older workers.

Second, providers need to adopt much more creative recruitment strategies. They might consider working with local high schools or vocational programs to employ students while they are in school – possibly offering academic credit for that work. Ask older workers to serve as mentors or coaches who can help these young people succeed in our field.

Third, providers need to invest more in technologies that could reduce the impact of worker shortages on our care settings. Clearly, technology cannot replace our caring workers. But, if used properly, certain technology solutions could support those workers and make their jobs easier. Before this option can work, we’ll need government and business support to build a robust broadband infrastructure across rural America.

HOPEFUL ABOUT THE FUTURE

The workforce issues that Nebraska and other rural states are facing can seem overwhelming. But I ended my trip to Nebraska on a hopeful note.

I’m hopeful because Nebraska providers are thinking seriously about solutions, rather than just wringing their hands over the challenges ahead.

I’m hopeful because LeadingAge Nebraska is working hard to address workforce issues through partnerships with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and gerontologists at the University of Nebraska, and through educational sessions like the one in which I participated.

WE NEED YOUR HELP

The work of state affiliates like LeadingAge Nebraska, combined with our work at the national level, can help us move forward in finding solutions to our workforce crisis. I’m sure of it.

But we also need the help of individual LTSS providers.

That brings me back to our Workforce Survey, which we need all members -- rural, urban, and suburban -- to complete. 

I know it’s easy to overlook these surveys – or to put them off for another day that never arrives. But this one really needs your attention.

We desperately need more information about the extent and nature of the workforce crisis in rural, urban, and suburban areas so we can develop strategies and tools to help you deal with it.

Otherwise, the day may come when you’re forced to turn away residents and clients because you simply don’t have the workers to meet their needs.

I don’t want that day to come. I don’t think that day has to come.

But we need your help to avoid that worst-case scenario. Take a few moments to complete the Workforce Survey. Your colleagues in the field – and your residents – will thank you for it.