Last year as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the country, requests for certified nursing assistants rose 25% in New York City alone, according to an analysis published last week in the Wall Street Journal.

Yet, as many nursing homes and senior living communities became hotspots for virus outbreaks — making the positions even more difficult than usual to fill — one healthcare labor union program found that a select group of its members saw the openings as a stepping stone to a brighter future. The results may provide hope for more targeted recruitment efforts in long-term care facilities across the country.

The 1199SEIU Training and Employment Funds — the education and job-placement arm of New York City’s biggest healthcare workers’ union — is focused on addressing workforce challenges in the healthcare industry. In 2019, shortly before the pandemic began, TEF began offering a free certified nursing assistant training program to help address direct care worker shortages within the long-term care industry. To date, most of the program’s 141 participants so far have been immigrants and people of color. Approximately 88% live in low-income neighborhoods, and 96% are women, Jing Su, a TEF program manager, told the Wall Street Journal.

Of the 92 who graduated since the program launched, Su said, 57 have landed jobs as certified nursing assistant jobs. After a year, they will be eligible for tuition assistance on advanced degrees.

When the pandemic hit, the organizations recruiting participants began targeting people who lost jobs in the pandemic, particularly restaurant and hotel workers. Although the move from flipping burgers to aiding older adults may not sound like an upgrade, even entry-level healthcare jobs typically offer better pay, union benefits and more opportunity for advancement, according to Roderick Jenkins, senior program officer for youth and workforce development at the New York Community Trust, which provided TEF with a grant last year to expand the program. 

Jenkins pointed to the success of one recent TEF program graduate, Meliesa English-Laing, a 34-year-old mother of two who grew up on a small goat-and-produce farm in rural Jamaica. After moving to New York City in 2015, she had a difficult time finding employment, even after earning her GED. Despite applying for fast-food gigs, office jobs and everything in between, the only job she had been able to land was a seasonal one delivering packages.

After enrolling in the TEF program, she started work at a nursing home in New York this month and soon will be earning her nursing degree.

“It’s a hard job, but for me, it’s a stepping stone,” English-Laing told the media outlet. “My future is brighter now.”