Elderly care: Fastest growing job may be hardest to fill

April 30, 2012

From lacrossetribune.com: “Elderly care: Fastest growing job may be hardest to fill” — Wisconsin’s population is growing older, and in the coming years there may be nobody to take care of us.

It’s what Pat Killeen calls a “perfect storm” for the health care industry.

Killeen is the former head of the Gundersen Lutheran Health Plan and now serves as vice chairman of the Coulee Region Long-term Care Workforce Coalition, an organization that has tried to foster training programs and educate the public on long-term care issues.

He’s worried because the fastest-growing occupations in Wisconsin — jobs taking care of the elderly and disabled — are the hardest to fill.

There’s no question that the nation is getting older. Life expectancy continues to rise, the oldest baby boomers are already entering their 60s, and younger people aren’t having as many babies as they used to.

That means by 2035, nearly one in four Wisconsin residents will be 65 or older — more in some rural counties — according to projections from state demographers.

People living longer are more likely to need care for chronic health conditions, which doesn’t just mean more visits to the doctor, but also help with daily tasks like bathing, dressing and housework.

But those same people moving into old age are also leaving the workforce.

Though the majority of people who receive long-term care rely on unpaid help — usually from family or friends — direct care workers, such as home health aides and personal care attendants, are the state’s largest occupational group and some of the fastest growing occupations.

They account for about a third of Wisconsin’s health care workforce and are responsible for about three-quarters of all paid hands-on care, according to a report by the Paraprofessional Health-care Institute.

But long-term care providers say they can’t fill job openings.

An economist will tell you there’s no such thing as a worker shortage. It’s just that the jobs don’t pay enough.

That’s the case at Independent Living Resources, one of several providers serving disabled people in the La Crosse area, which struggles to fill openings for home and personal care workers.

“People don’t get paid well for the type of work they’re doing, and it’s hard work,” said executive director Kathie Knoble-Iverson. “Everything from cleaning floors to cleaning the person.”

The average home health aide in La Crosse earned about $11 an hour last year, according to data from the Department of Workforce Development. A personal care worker made about $9.

At Independent Living Resources, some personal care workers are nursing students getting experience in the field; many are older women supplementing their Social Security benefits.

So why not offer better pay? Because Medicaid, the primary funding source for long-term care, reimburses for personal care services at $16.08 an hour, which providers say doesn’t cover their costs. Rates were last increased in 2008 — by 1.5 percent.

“If we could get a decent raise I’d pass it directly on to our employees,” Knoble-Iverson said.

‘Not a pretty picture’

With funding from a three-year federal grant, Western Technical College is rolling out new programs to recruit students to the health care field.

Beginning this spring, students can enroll in a 40-hour personal care worker training program for about $112 that will provide graduates with a certificate to allow them to start work, and — the college hopes — provide a stepping stone to a career in nursing.

“We want to get people employed and give them a taste of the health care profession,” said Sandra Schultz, coordinator of the Bridges2Healthcare program. “Perhaps they would move onto another field on down the road. It’s all about building new skills.”

But the training requirement is a disincentive for new workers considering an entry-level job.

“You can go work at Best Buy for $10 an hour,” said T.J. Brooks, chairman of the economics department at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he teaches a course on the economics of health care. “And they start paying from day one.”

Even with a labor surplus, Brooks said many unemployed workers will wait for the economy to improve to land higher-paying jobs.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Jerry Hanoski, chairman of the long-term care coalition. “What do you do when you need a service and it’s not there?”

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