Shortage of Health Professionals Was Bad. Then Came the Pandemic

Local health providers say finding licensed professionals has been more challenging since the pandemic started

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Staffing healthcare openings has been hard for providers for numerous years. However, the past year of pandemic has created further difficulty in finding people to care for the sick, elderly and injured. The challenge goes across every facet of healthcare.

“We’re struggling just like every other healthcare organization is struggling to find enough licensed professionals,” said Donna J. Britton, director of human resources at Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists.

She used to receive 30 to 50 resumes in response to an ad for an LPN or RN, offering her plenty of candidates to look through. That was five years ago.

“Now we’re lucky to get three,” Britton said.

Though she acknowledges the number of people interested in working at SOS can fluctuate, usually the nursing roles have plenty of applicants. That has flip-flopped, and the nonclinical roles are now easier to fill.

“These last few years, it’s been a very noticeable decline in the number of licensed professionals applying to open positions,” Britton said.

Some of her clinical directors say that an increase in demand at long-term care facilities has increased demand for these positions. In addition, burned-out nurses leaving the industry since the pandemic started now plays a role in fewer applicants.

Competition from larger healthcare organizations have made it tougher for smaller ones to attract nurses. In the past two months, Britton has noticed help wanted ads offering sign-on bonuses of $7,500 to $10,000 — figures with which smaller organizations cannot compete, even those with a robust benefits package as SOS offers.

Britton has also noticed that the quality of candidates has also declined, as many have spotty work histories or end up having attendance issues after hire. That makes retention harder.

To address these issues, SOS has been advertising in more periodicals to attract a larger pool of candidates and refreshing the HR department’s skills in interviewing and training.

Other organizations have felt the struggle.

“No doubt there have been challenges,” said Suzanne Talarico, manager of talent acquisition at St. Joseph’s Health. “The pandemic has had significant impacts on everyone, including members of our St. Joseph’s Health family.”

The number of open positions has remained stable throughout the pandemic at St. Joseph’s. Talarico said that the human resources staff collaborates with clinical leaders and educators to think of strategies to help with recruitment and retention, such as flexible staffing — a big draw to many seeking employment in healthcare.

Expediting hiring also keeps the process moving along, which can ensure any vacancies are filled quickly. Instead of taking weeks, it can take only days to go from screening to hire. Technology has helped accelerate the entire process, including virtual job fairs and interviews, which the pandemic necessitated.

Many people in healthcare want to not only get a job but to enter or continue a career.

“We promote career pathing and tuition benefit opportunities for nonlicensed staff who want to join the healthcare field,” Talarico said. “An interested candidate may be undecided perhaps about which specialty profession they wish to pursue and roles such as the patient care technician provide comprehensive experiences that can be flexible to meet the needs of our patients in real time while inspiring internal mobility and professional career path decisions.”

For 2021, Talarico hopes the momentum of hiring during the pandemic continues as well as the stronger sense of community and company culture gained during the pandemic.

“What we have achieved and experienced collectively throughout this past year and continue to navigate — while it is has not been easy — has strengthened us as an organization,” she said. “Having the privilege of repeating that message many times a day is the best.”

Colleen Engler, chief human resource officer at Loretto, acknowledged that her organization has felt its share of hiring difficulties, especially for direct caregivers.

“People are fearful of COVID,” she said. “The frontline leaders—caregivers—have a very challenging job. They’re always challenging, and now it’s more challenging.”

She thinks that what Loretto does internally helps support and promote external interest in the company and therefore support recruiting. For example, staying flexible in scheduling to accommodate school and childcare needs encourages employees to share  with others how much they enjoy their jobs. Loretto also provides diapers to employees with infants through their diaper bank.

Loretto is nationally registered with the Department of Labor to offer an LPN apprenticeship program and offers other on-the-job and online training and certifications to help employees advance their careers.

Loretto also employs a career coach who can help find out why an employee may be struggling. For example, if an employee does not want to come in, perhaps a lack of childcare or transportation is the reason. The career coach “can step in and suggest resources and give support,” Engler said.

Loretto’s expedited hiring process has helped fill vacancies more quickly. Loretto has also implemented a fast-track CNA program with permission from the New York State Department of Health to train employees in only two days in the classroom, followed by a period of shadowing more experienced employees before working independently.

“That has really helped us, along with the benefits package,” Engler said. “We have a good company culture and we want people to be successful.”

Just more than 250 are employed among ConnextCare’s 13 locations. Stephanie Earle, director of human resources, said that staffing is going fairly well, except for clinical staff.

“There was hesitancy of changing employers at the beginning of the pandemic, but we’re starting to see an uptick,” Earle said.

Close relationships with area nursing schools and trades schools have helped keep vacancies filled.

Swerving to digital recruitment has been a big change for ConnextCare, such as participating in a virtual career fair with Workforce Development and performing virtual job interviews.

“They don’t get to physically see the site and how they interact with the staff organically,” Earle said. “But the candidate is a little more relaxed and isn’t as on the defense. You can have a more genuine conversation.”

The pandemic canceled employee get-togethers, which is a blow to employee morale. Earle said that holding theme weeks in each center and sharing photos with other employees has helped, as has hosting some casual Zoom meetings.

“We’ve had more support from community members which the staff appreciates,” she added.