Bridget Hanner walked into the Pleasant View Care Center in Whiting last year hoping that they would pay her to wash dishes or fold laundry. Instead, she suddenly found herself on a path to a new health care career.

Hanner, a lifelong resident of northwest Iowa, had a large gap in her resume after quitting work 26 years ago to raise a daughter and care for ailing parents. But Kathryne Keane, Pleasant View Care Center’s administrator, thought Hanner’s caring nature would fit well in the center’s new apprenticeship program.

Last fall, Hanner became a Certified Nursing Assistant, one of roughly 50 people who keep Pleasant View running by assisting residents with daily tasks such as showering, dressing, transfers, and ambulation. She’s also an example of the powerful tools that many health care organizations are now using to fill needed positions.

“We cannot just wait for people to walk in and give us an application to be a CNA,” Keane said. “CNAs just aren’t out there waiting to apply. We have to create them. You have to just go out and find them.”

Whiting sits in Monona County, where the median household income of $53,104 in 2019 ranked 15th from the bottom of Iowa’s 99 counties. It is not a wealthy area, not the kind of place that draws a large influx of new people yearning to launch a new health care career.

“We have to really be thinking creatively to get nurses into our area,” Keane stressed. “We just believe that’s the only way we’re going to get out of this crisis.”

Last year, Pleasant View Care Center used a $250,000 coronavirus recovery grant from Future Ready Iowa to build its own Education Center on the care center’s campus. The new facility includes two 40-student classrooms and a laboratory with seven replica rooms where mannequins simulate patients being treated in nursing homes and hospitals.

The apprenticeship program also launched last year, as well as parallel classes for high school students. Combined, the two channels have added more than 25 new CNAs to Pleasant View’s payroll over the past 15 months.

Hanner said she enjoys working with people who are quick to provide help when she needs it. “Not too many places would take a 57-year-old, but they gave me a chance,” she said.

High school students have proven to be more than effective at performing CNA duties, Keane said, and their preferred schedules go a long way toward helping Pleasant View fill its 2 p.m.-to-10 p.m. shifts.

“Our facility would be struggling if we did not have high shool CNAs that are able to work our evening shift,” she said. “The facility believes in working around the high school CNA schedules.”

That doesn’t mean that construction of new career pathways has finished. Concerned that its current apprenticeship program may be too broad for many potential apprentices, Pleasant View Care Center is developing plans to add another, more limited form of CNA apprenticeship, Keane said.  The facility also has moved a four-bedroom house onto its campus and is actively courting refugees with a nursing background, hoping that the lure of accompanying housing will make newcomers more interested in settling in Whiting, population 745.

The Education Center also hosted a career fair for middle schoolers last fall, and Keane has been talking with a local community college about making it possible for students to obtain college credit based on the classes they take there. Discussions are ongoing.

Keane believes the grant-built Education Center will prove essential in the coming years as Pleasant View continues working to show Monona County residents the value that can come from a health care career.  

Rural Iowans are accustomed to aiming low as a condition of staying in their home communities, the administrator explains. But with the proper training, economic opportunities abound. Residents don’t have to leave for a bigger city to find a new career.

“We can do more with the training,” she said. “I think that’s the main thing about having the apprenticeship program here, is that we can hold their hands. They’re on familiar ground, and we can walk them through every step of the way.

“It really is the tip of the iceberg.”

Click here for more information on Future Ready Iowa grants.