The Healthcare workforce strategy you can’t afford to ignore

Updated on October 23, 2023

Healthcare has a labor problem that is going to get worse before it gets better. 

Ninety percent of healthcare systems are currently experiencing significant talent shortages. Even the best of the best aren’t immune to this labor crisis, with the top 19 providers struggling to fill more than 27,000 open jobs. The need for workers is only expected to grow as healthcare expects to add an additional 2.1M jobs by 2032

Even if we could recruit thousands of new workers to healthcare, that doesn’t solve the industry’s other problem: keeping current workers on pace with the changing needs of healthcare and technological advancements. And because of the growth in volume and skills needed, the ad hoc levers we’ve used in the past, like hefty sign on bonuses, salary acceleration or tuition reimbursement, aren’t working any more, at least not enough. These initiatives lack cohesion and band-aids don’t fix systemic issues.

Many organizations are missing a more strategic approach to addressing the labor shortage, one that’s both aligned to workforce needs and keeps pace with the rapid rate of change in the industry. Keeping pace with growing needs will require new approaches to retaining and developing your workforce. 

The better lever

Companies are finding that workforce education is enabling them to retain and stabilize their talent pipeline. This isn’t your typical workforce training or tuition reimbursement. This requires taking a new, more strategic approach to education that skill up high-need roles from within, and  expands beyond role-specific training to cultivate soft skills and resourceful leaders. This holistic approach also provides equitable access for advancement to workers who may not previously had access to education or lacked the skills required for advanced roles. 

In practice, workforce education should deliver on both a micro/tactical level and a macro/strategic level. It both fills a job or trains for a role and also addresses high-level changes in the industry to enable employees to adapt to the new world of work. 

The secret? Learning to learn.

One obvious staffing challenge in healthcare is keeping up with the extraordinary pace of technology. I’m seeing that training staff to effectively use technology is less about learning the software and more about learning to learn. While specific training is crucial, no one can keep up with every system upgrade or new software. Organizations can, however, cultivate a culture of learning, one where leadership from the top-down actively recognizes, reinforces and rewards the need for curiosity, continuous improvement and an ability to adapt — while providing the access and tools to develop new skills that grow careers.

Why hard skills aren’t enough

For all the importance of technical skills in the healthcare industry, soft skills arguably play a bigger role in patient care. (Or certainly in a patient’s perception of care.) In an industry that works with people in their most vulnerable states, cultural competence and soft skills like communication and empathy can make a measurable difference in patient outcomes. 

Higher education teaches soft skills by introducing learners to new values and ways of thinking that foster collaboration. In terms of healthcare, this not only bridges care between patient and caregiver but improves communication among all types and levels of staff. 

A cross-disciplinary academic approach can upskill/reskill for specific roles, foster much-needed soft skills and encourage broad-based learning at the same time. Even when not connected to a particular role, this multi-faceted approach improves patient care, increases employee opportunity and engagement and supports organizations in their long-term business strategies. 

Take nursing, the largest employment group in all of healthcare. The profession requires far more than drawing blood or even delivering critical care. Nurses today need to document cases, manage people, collaborate with care teams, and stay on top of regulations and compliance, cybersecurity and billing in a new digital way. 

Better training and targeted workforce education also improves the quality of care for patients and the quality of life for your workers, countering burnout and boosting morale, while delivering on your overarching mission of service. The path to successful workforce education is not linear. It’s complex, and requires a cross-disciplinary, strategic approach.

Start with business objectives

Education initiatives can bring great upside to workers, increasing income, quality of life and career advancements. But for a sustainable solution, workforce education has to be tied to direct business outcomes. Those that do pay dividends across the board, for both employees and organizations, and pay far more than disjointed programs that act as temporary solutions to long-term problems. 

When there are business goals in place, investing in education becomes a strategic decision, not an expense. That philosophy provides a framework for understanding what your workforce needs and brings an urgency to creating a sustainable, flexible solution that drives company-wide success. 

Break down barriers to learning 

Even a brilliant solution doesn’t ensure success, and the best programs will fail without employee engagement. I see this all the time in workforce education: good intentions, bad results. Companies are investing great time and effort into their staffing issues, but it’s not delivering. 

Preparing the healthcare industry for tomorrow’s staffing needs requires change at every level, starting by removing roadblocks to education. Take, for instance, tuition reimbursement. Today, 48% of companies offer tuition assistance, usually in the form of tuition reimbursement, but only 2% of employees take advantage of a benefit that 84% of people ostensibly want. Where’s the disconnect? 

It’s not that employees don’t want to upskill or reskill or be in a position for advancement or higher pay, It’s that they can’t afford it or it’s not flexible enough for their schedule. 

Traditional tuition assistance requires employees to pay up front and get reimbursed months later. Many simply don’t have the funds needed to float the note. They also don’t have time for traditional schooling that requires attending class at certain hours, often in person. 

To make education as accessible as possible, we have to challenge these outdated models that are no longer serving our employees. This starts with education programs that offer prepaid tuition and flexible online course schedules that break down barriers to learning and growth. 

You can’t hire your way out of this talent crisis, but you don’t need to. Give your people opportunities for advancement with education that expand beyond single skills, and you’ll get employees who can handle today’s complex positions. Strategic education improves employee engagement and satisfaction, and it will strengthen your current and future talent pool to meet business goals. This forward-thinking approach affects the level of care you deliver today and the pipeline of talent you need for tomorrow.   

Michelle Westfort Chief University Officer InStride copy
Michelle Westfort

Michelle Westfort is a globally recognized leader in post secondary education with over 20 years of experience. She brings a bold sense of innovation to drive successful programs and partnerships derived from a humble immigrant family upbringing. Her career has centered around unlocking access to education from high school launch programs to adult career pathways and from digital transformations to workforce skilling. Her work has spanned marketing, business development, program design, and strategy at mission-centric organizations such as The Learning House (acquired by Wiley NYSE: WLY), Pivot, Navias (ASX:NVT) and Education Management Corporation.

At InStride, Michelle sits at the core of learning innovation, leading functions overseeing new partner development, academic partner success, and workforce solutions strategy. Fierce in her outlook and her execution, Michelle is a frequent speaker on the topics of women in tech and skills for the future.