May 7, 2021

Paul Hayes Staff Writer

The North Country’s health care sector needs a shot in the arm.

Workforce, not vaccinations.

Littleton Regional Healthcare laid off 20 percent of its employees to control costs during the worst of the pandemic, and faces a staffing crunch as it seeks to re-hire.

LRH has posted jobs for up to five weeks without receiving a single application, and often the applicants do not have the appropriate skill sets.

“It’s definitely been challenging. At one point, including per diems, we had 70 positions open,” said Kylee Emerson, a human resources specialist at LRH, during a roundtable hosted by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Sue Collins (I-Maine) on Wednesday.

The solution might be old-fashioned teamwork.

Mirroring efforts elsewhere, Littleton Regional and White Mountains Community College will strengthen their existing partnership to meet COVID challenges.

They will renew a joint Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) apprenticeship program, which involves two months of classroom study and 3,600 hours of on-the-job training, in order to fill entry level positions.

In addition, White Mountains Community College will move it’s Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program to Littleton in January 2022.

Dr. Chuck Lloyd, president of White Mountains Community College, said it was important for colleges to address workforce issues, noting that New Hampshire faces a nursing shortage.

“That’s what community colleges do best. We respond to business and industry needs. And as their needs shift, we need to shift our programming,” he said.

Courtney Daniels, the physician practices operations manager at LRH, said the partnership with White Mountains Community College has helped to create a home grown feeder system.

Graduates of the CNA program have risen through the ranks at Littleton Regional.

“What we’ve seen over the last two years of partnership is that the majority of people who start out in these lower paid positions ultimately want to move on. And what we offer here at Littleton Regional Healthcare is that opportunity. So we do have a tuition reimbursement program. Two of our five [nursing assistant] apprentices have decided to move on to an LPN program and that ultimately leaves us with knowing that they’ll stay on long term with us. So I can’t speak highly enough about the benefits of an apprenticeship program, we look forward to doing another one soon,” Daniels said.

Schools like White Mountains Community College will play a key role post-COVID.

Neighboring Maine lost 30 percent of low-wage, low-skilled jobs during the pandemic. Community colleges will be at the center of workforce training efforts, as people shift careers in search of employment.

“The real motivation here is to find ways we can bring these low-skilled people into those high wage opportunities where there has actually been growth,” said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System.

Hassan is working to boost college-employer efforts.

She co-sponsored a bipartisan bill, The Gateway To Careers Act, which would support partnerships between employers and community colleges/technical schools/training programs to support workforce training and fill positions in in-demand fields.

“As we’re emerging from the pandemic, we have a real opportunity right now to connect people with programs where they can both learn and earn at the same time, while receiving the needed training for really good-paying jobs,” said Hassan. “The Gateway to Careers Act would build partnerships between community colleges and workforce organizations and businesses. It would also make sure that we are addressing long-standing problems faced by workers, including many barriers that prevent people from participating in our workforce.”

The bill would assist with support services to help a range of students — from high school graduates to working parents — complete programs, develop skills and secure good-paying jobs.

That’s important, said Emerson, particularly for working parents who have struggled to re-enter the workforce during COVID, often because they cannot pay for child care, cannot access it, or have been saddled with remote learning responsibilities at home.

“That is a huge burden on a lot of people,” she said.