Baby boomer bubble could stretch Iowa's health care workforce

State needs to promote health care careers to young people, legislators say

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DES MOINES — A key Republican suggested Tuesday the state promote health care occupations for young people similar to a focus on STEM fields to meet the challenges of Iowa’s aging population and a shortfall of trained professionals to take care of them.

Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, co-leader of the Legislature’s health & human services budget subcommittee, told delegates to the Older Iowans Legislature (OIL) the bubble of aging baby boomers coupled with Iowa’s workforce shortage will make it increasingly difficult to meet the demand for health care services, especially in home or community settings in rural areas.

“As Iowa’s population continues to age, the need for more care providers continues to grow and getting our young people to consider a career in senior care is something this state needs to focus on,” said Heaton.

“Without reaching out to the next generation and showing them that they could have a fulfilling career in providing care, we will face a significant difficulty in meeting the needs of our growing senior population in this state,” he warned.

Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds have placed extra emphasis on attracting young people into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as the high-tech jobs of the future, but Heaton said a similar push is needed to make occupations and salaries in the health care fields more attractive to high school and college students as well.

STEM skills are needed to grow Iowa’s economy, “but equally important is having people who provide the daily care activities that seniors need in their homes and communities,” Heaton told OIL delegates who convened in the Iowa House chambers in the state Capitol this week.

“Health care occupations are in such demand in this state we can’t begin in the future to be ready to take care of the obligations that we’re going to have as we address the needs of our seniors. We just don’t have enough people in the workforce,” he said.

“We just somehow need to introduce our young people with some firsthand experience to see whether or not they would like to get into health care rather than some other occupation out there,” he added. “We desperately need these people. We’re just on the very edge of all of this need that I see on the horizon and we need to react to that.”

OIL delegate John Hale said Heaton’s message was “music to our ears” knowing there’s a legislator in a key position to do something about the problem who “just gets it.” He said senior advocates would be willing to sit down with legislators and Gov. Terry Branstad to look at creating a STEM-like initiative focused on careers and support in the health- and long-term care services.

“I think what it requires is just some leadership. Somebody to say this is a priority and we’re going to deal with it,” Hale said.

Shawn Zierke of Homestead said one approach to reaching an “untapped workforce” would be to require Iowa community colleges or universities to have at least three credits of service learning for students in their curriculum programs that would enable them to get real-world experience and work references along with specialized skills such as optional dementia training certification that Heaton indicated is badly needed.

“I believe there are many people who don’t know they have a heart for it because they haven’t been exposed,” she said.

Helene Magee of Dubuque, chair of the Older Iowans Legislature, which also heard speeches from Branstad and Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said the gathering usually draws 75 to 100 participants but attendance was held below 50 this year due to flooding in Eastern Iowa.

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