Caring nurse talks with her elderly patient
(Credit: bymuratdeniz / Getty Images)

High school students working in senior living and care settings can earn credit for their work under a new experiential learning program adopted by state legislators in Minnesota earlier this year.

Under the program, a high school junior or senior employed by an assisted living, skilled nursing, home- and community-based services, hospital or childcare provider can earn up to two elective credits toward graduation, with one credit earned for every 350 hours worked. 

“We must attract new people to our profession so we can continue to play a vital role in the healthcare continuum today and into the future,” LeadingAge Minnesota President and CEO Kari Thurlow told McKnight’s Senior Living. “We know there’s no silver bullet to solve our workforce crisis, but this program is one way we can support efforts to recruit and retain the workforce needed to care for our growing population of seniors.”

LeadingAge Minnesota has been promoting the program since it was passed as part of the K-12 Education omnibus bill by the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year. 

“The new program offers students an incredible opportunity to serve their community, gain work experience and connect with older adults while earning a paycheck and high school credit,” Thurlow said.

The long-term care sector is facing workforce challenges that affect the ability for older adults to receive care. Minnesota has a 20% job vacancy rate across settings, Thurlow said. As a member of the state’s Long-Term Care Imperative, along with Care Providers of Minnesota, the state affiliate of the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living, LeadingAge Minnesota has been sounding the alarm on the sector’s staffing crisis for some time.

A Long-Term Care Imperative survey of assisted living providers earlier this year showed that the workforce situation was bleak and getting worse, as staffing shortages led to assisted living communities rejecting thousands of referrals due to inadequate staffing levels.

It has been an ongoing challenge. A late 2021 survey by the Long-Term Care Imperative found that more than 12,000 positions in Minnesota assisted living communities were unfilled, with almost a third of assisted living providers reporting that they were limiting census due to staffing levels.

The experiential learning program allows providers to introduce students to careers in aging services while adding much-needed staff to their teams, Thurlow said, adding that the program complements other efforts that the industry has made to connect with high school students.

“Now, high school students have an added incentive to work in long-term care, which we know can open them up to numerous pathways and career advancement opportunities within the field,” Thurlow said.

Although there is “greater interest” in the program from the provider side, the biggest challenge has been getting the word out to the state’s 331 school districts to opt in, she said. Eligible students must apply through their schools, but because the program is so new, few schools have a process in place to accommodate student interest. 

“Right now, our main effort has been to help spread the word and provide members with resources to connect with their local school districts to encourage them to participate,” Thurlow said.

Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center, which offers independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing, is working with Fairmont High School to recruit students into the program there. One student already has enrolled as a culinary assistant, and six other students are applying to serve as personal care attendants in assisted living, culinary assistants or certified nursing assistants.

Lakeview Administrator Deb Barnes said that she is hopeful that the program will help address staffing shortages and called it a “phenomenal tool” to introduce high school students to the aging services sector.

“I believe earning money and high school credit at the same time in a long-term care setting will be much more appealing than just earning money in a different sector,” Barnes told McKnight’s Senior Living. “Beyond that, I believe it will spark an interest in some to consider a career in long-term care.”