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Thanks to two new federally funded grants, technical college students in high demand career paths now have access to additional funding and training opportunities as apprentices. The Apprenticeship State Expansion (ASE) grant is a federal grant from the United States Department of Labor, which was awarded to the State of Georgia to promote the creation of Registered Apprenticeship Programs throughout the state. The Technical College System of Georgia’s Office of Workforce Development administers the ASE grant. The Apprenticeship for Economic Recovery (AER) grant provides funding for apprenticeships that upskill Georgia’s workforce into careers in industries key to the state’s economic recovery such as healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation. This grant is federally funded through Georgia’s State Fiscal Recovery Fund and allocated to the State of Georgia through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Placing qualified candidates in healthcare careers like nursing is one of the primary objectives for both grants. The statewide nursing shortage in Georgia rose to critical levels during the COVID-19 pandemic according to Colquitt Regional Medical Center’s Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Patient Services Dena Zinker, MSN, RN, NE-BC, FACHE. Prior to the pandemic, the medical center generally had fewer than 10 nursing positions open. During the pandemic, that number rose to over 100 nursing job openings. Zinker said that her nursing team rallied and took great pride in providing exceptional care to their patients without relying on travel nurses to cover the shortage. “Our nurses did not want us to bring in travel nurses,” she said. “They showed up and they showed out so that we never had to. They worked incredibly hard and took care of the patients. One of the biggest pride moments Colquitt Regional had during the pandemic was the whole staff pulling together to take care of our community.”
In addition to not relying on travel nurses during the pandemic, Colquitt Regional has continued to expand their facilities and their staff over the past two years. Zinker credits much of the hospital’s nurse staffing success to a proactive approach to recruitment and training partnerships. Colquitt Regional offers nurse externships for nursing students in their last year of nursing school, as well as nurse residencies for recently graduated nurses. The extern program is a shadowing experience that puts nursing students at the bedside with a registered nurse to give them a better understanding of what it means to be a nurse. The nurse residency program builds on the nursing school foundation with advanced hands-on skills training and rotations akin to physician residency programs. Together, these programs prepare stronger, more confident nurses who are equipped to care for acutely ill patients earlier in their careers, according to Zinker. They also serve as a powerful recruitment tool. “Our staff are great ambassadors for our facility,” said Zinker. “We know that if we can get those students in our facility working elbow-to-elbow with our staff, we can win their hearts.”
Since the apprenticeship partnership with SRTC began in July of 2022, Colquitt Regional has recruited 14 Southern Regional Technical College Nursing (SRTC) students and recent graduates as nurse apprentices. Nurse externs, nurse residents, and licensed practical nurses interested in earning their Associate of Science in Nursing degree are able to take advantage of the apprenticeship program. The apprentices may use grant funding for work or school-related expenses including certification tests, college tuition and fees, nursing equipment and uniforms, childcare, and mileage reimbursement. Zinker said that the apprenticeship program serves as an added benefit that makes the extern and residency programs even more appealing to nursing students and recent graduates. In addition to grant funding, student nurses benefit from Colquitt Regional nurse mentorship. Zinker said that her veteran nurses take these mentorships seriously. “Our nursing staff recognize the value of the program and how different it looks when a nurse graduates from these training programs; how much more prepared the nursing graduates are to join our team upon program completion.”
SRTC’s Dean of Nursing Tammy Bryant, MSN, BSN, RN said that it was fitting that Colquitt Regional became SRTC’s first nursing apprenticeship program partner. “Colquitt Regional Medical Center is always on the cutting edge when it comes to meeting the nursing workforce shortage in Georgia,” said Bryant. “Colquitt Regional was the first hospital to partner with Southern Regional Technical College to take advantage of the apprenticeship program for nursing students. A nursing apprenticeship program allows LPN and ASN nursing students an opportunity to work in healthcare while completing their nursing education. Colquitt Regional has also supported the SRTC nursing program by funding positions and providing equipment for our program. As the Dean of Nursing, I am honored to work with Colquitt Regional on these innovative opportunities for our students.”
Zinker said that the apprenticeship program has helped nursing students manage their financial responsibilities, enhance their clinical experience, and gain confidence as nurses. “It is tough to walk into a room and say, ‘I am going to be your nurse today’,” she said. “This program strengthens them as nurses. They emerge from the program much more ready to begin their careers.” However, the apprentices are not the only beneficiary of this program, according to Zinker. “The apprentice program allows us to put even more nursing students at the bedside with our staff. The have become a huge help, extending the hands of our staff and helping to provide exceptional care for our patients. I am proud to say that our apprentices are already an invaluable part of our team.”
SRTC currently has 50 students placed in apprenticeships with local businesses and organizations in the areas of healthcare, automotive, and transportation. The college is continually adding more apprenticeship partnerships. For more information about the apprenticeship program at SRTC, contact AmyCarter@southernregional.edu