Julie Parks

Four Michigan senior living communities are partners in a $6 million grant awarded to Grand Rapids Community College and designed to address healthcare workforce needs in the western part of the state.

GRCC’s America’s Promise grant was one of 23 awards totaling $111 million announced by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday. Nationwide, the funds will be used by regional partnerships in 28 states to connect more than 21,000 Americans to education and in-demand jobs. The largest amount of any individual grant, $6 million, was awarded to GRCC and seven other partnerships.

“West Michigan’s healthcare employers have been struggling to fill positions ranging from entry-level to highly skilled jobs,” said Bill Pink, dean and vice president of GRCC’s School of Workforce Development. “Community-wide collaboration will be vital to addressing these talent needs.”

The four senior living communities participating in the grant are among the largest healthcare employers in West Michigan, according to GRCC. They include:

  • Clark Retirement Community, a nonprofit continuing care retirement community serving approximately 500 residents on two campuses in Grand Rapids, with more than 400 staff members.
  • Holland Home, a nonprofit CCRC employing more than 1,100 people and serving more than 2,500 daily on its campuses in Grand Rapids and Byron Center, MI.
  • Porter Hills, a Grand Rapids-based not-for-profit senior living and long-term care provider serving approximately 4,500 older adults through nine communities and services.
  • Sunset Manor and Villages, a nonprofit senior living provider in Jenison, MI, offering independent living, assisted living and memory care.

“These employer partners were critical to GRCC receiving this grant, and they are critical to the success of it,” Julie Parks, GRCC’s executive director of Workforce Training, told McKnight’s Senior Living. “They have offered to help the colleges with the refinement and development of any program curriculum. They have committed to offering internships, tours, interviews and hiring of participants. They will help us identify any additional positions they need to fill that might require training.”

Other employers involved in the grant include Cherry Health, an independent, nonprofit federally qualified health center; Mercy Health, a partnership of hospitals, doctors and other healthcare providers throughout West Michigan; and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. Other partners in the grant include West Michigan Works, Montcalm Community College, Muskegon Community College, The Right Place, Lakeshore Advantage, Muskegon Area First, Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Urban League, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, and Hispanic Center of West Michigan.

In senior care, the effort will target the position of certified nursing assistant, Parks said.

“The long-term care employers who were part of the grant application will work with the colleges to identify additional high-demand occupations,” she said. “We will also be working together to create career pathways for staff in these communities. What does that mean? We will work together to identify how a person might grow into more advanced positions the longer they stay within the industry. That could be, a person starts as a personal care assistant, gets certification to become a CNA, then perhaps becomes an licensed practical nurse and then a registered nurse.”

Potential candidates for the program will be identified through the workforce organization Michigan Works and other community-based partners, Parks said. “They will career-coach individuals, through various assessments and information-gathering, to find those individuals for whom healthcare is a good fit,” she said. “Not everyone is cut out to work in healthcare, and we will work hard to find the right individual and help them start at the right job to build a career in healthcare that they can grow in.”

The program will offer free or low-cost training, Parks said, and will leverage support services — such as transportation, child care and uniform assistance — for participants who need them.

Training will occur at the colleges and at the senior living communities and other healthcare employers, she said. “An important component of the project is having these participants get exposed to the workplace early in their training so they have a strong context for what they are learning and why,” Parks said.

In addition to helping students learn job-specific skills, the senior living communities and other healthcare employers will “help us retain students in programs by helping us understand cultural differences, and they will work with us on the ‘soft skills’ healthcare employees need,” she said.

Students in the program also will be prepared to take any necessary certification exam, Parks said.

Three-fourths of the students served by the grant must be new to the healthcare sector, she said, and 25% can be healthcare employees who are seeking skills training to obtain positions that pay more than their current ones.

Parks said she expects funding for the three-year grant to begin in January, with the first program beginning in the spring. “It’s one of our goals to find a way to build a system to continue this work with employers, the workforce system and community partners when the grant funds end,” she said. “We have a plan for sustainability, but first we need to get things set up and moving.”

Parks said GRCC welcomes any other area senior living or long-term care employer who wishes to participate in the program. “We intend to set up a system that will build a strong talent pipeline for the healthcare industry,” she said. “To do that, we need employers to be involved. We have to understand their needs to prepare the workforce.”

According to the Michigan Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare is the fastest-growing major occupation group in West Michigan. The group is projected to grow by 23%, adding more than 55,000 jobs by 2022.

Nationally, through 2025, the senior living industry will need to hire 1.2 million new employees to serve the increasing number of older adults becoming senior living residents and to replace existing workers who leave their jobs, according to a report by Argentum, “Getting to 2025: A Senior Living Roadmap.”