Heartland Forward

Heartland Forward grant program launches with health fair at PBHS
Posted on 02/06/2024
Abby Crites fields questions from prospective students during the health fair.

Poplar Bluff High School hosted its inaugural health fair on Friday, Jan. 26, as the first step of a grant-funded initiative designed to expose students to lucrative careers in the health care industry, and help combat the nursing shortage in Butler County.

The nursing career pathways program is being piloted locally under Heartland Forward with a near $1.5 million Workforce Opportunities in Rural Communities grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, after a community coalition was formed in March through the Greater Poplar Bluff Area Chamber of Commerce.

“From an economic development perspective with data, feedback and looking at the region of this rural community, there are limited job options that pay a higher income and offer benefits,” stated Dr. Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá, Heartland Forward program director for health and wellness. “Health care is one of the most, if not the most, likely paths to get a good career that will pay you well—especially if you come from a lower-income family or your parents may not have had the college experience—to improve economic mobility for students, and also for the area.”

The Poplar Bluff Technical Career Center and Three Rivers College, along with neighboring hospitals and nursing homes, set up informational booths in the gymnasium with representatives on hand to provide exposure of related career fields to the student body. Under the partnership, PBHS has committed to hosting the health fair for three years with anticipation that the school system will continue coordinating its own event in the future.

“I’ve… heard a few students mention that they are now interested in some aspect of the nursing field, where it wasn’t even on their radar before today,” PBHS anatomy and physiology teacher Karen Harris reported back to the coalition afterward. “I look forward to continuing working with each of you so we can help our students establish a successful career pathway, and contribute to a quality health care system in our community.”

Plans are already underway to improve the health fair next year, Rodriguez-Alcalá mentioned, including expanding employer representation, adding interactive activities such as virtual reality and launching a speaker series leading up to the date. Since the long-term goal is not only to increase student interest in the profession, but to improve retention rates at medical centers, going through the TCC health occupations program is strongly recommended as a starting point, according to Rodriguez-Alcalá.

"More important than the number of students is that the right ones are entering, particularly at the beginning, since we can’t expand capacity too fast at Three Rivers College, because there’s a big bottleneck all over the country – with regard to a shortage of faculty,” she noted. Students interested in learning more about the NCP program may reach out to TCC instructor Abby Crites as an initial point of contact. In the future, with part of the grant funding, multiple new positions will be established for managing the apprenticeships, outreach, consulting and marketing, Rodriguez-Alcalá continued.

Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center has agreed to provide paid-for apprenticeships for students completing clinical components required in courses. Limited assistance will be available with flexibility to help with expenses such as child care or transportation, officials confirmed. Wraparound support will also be provided, including mental health services and mentorships, if deemed possible. A program launch is tentatively being planned in the spring to showcase the new simulation labs at Three Rivers, which will be equipped with updated mannequins so options may be expanded for students needing training in order to obtain CNA, LPN or RN certifications.

Founded by the Walton family, the Heartland Foundation is a ‘think-and-do tank’ based in Bentonville, Ark., dedicated to fostering job creation in the Heartland, defined as 20 states in the middle of the country, according to the nonpartisan nonprofit. The Community Funding Accelerator is credited for helping to secure the federal funding. Last year, health care employment grew at its fastest clip since 1991, adding 654,000 jobs, while nursing staffing is down 4.6 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to research compiled by the Altarum Institute.

“Only one pilot came out of this from a rural health care report we did at the end of 2022 that covered six states so we can learn and understand what is needed from a community perspective, and provide a little more structure and coordination to help get it off the ground with a grow-your-own kind of strategy for the workforce,” said Rodriguez-Alcalá, adding that a large reason Poplar Bluff was chosen was because of the rapid response from all parties involved. “Eventually we’d like to see about doing something similar in other communities—not replicating, but helping to bring together a local commission to see what holes need to be filled there—with our role simply being the facilitator and conveyor, and it then being funded by philanthropy.”


Cutline: With representation from the health occupations program, TCC instructor Abby Crites fields questions from prospective students.

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