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A new university-level program aims to help retain existing CNAs and build a new workforce, adding to a spate of higher-education initiatives aimed at attracting entry-level nursing staff.

The Georgia CNA Career Pathway Initiative is supported by an $11 million grant from the Georgia Department of Public Health and faculty and staff from the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health’s Institute for Disaster Management and Institute of Gerontology.

Its launch follows efforts by several other states to commit funding to higher education nursing resources for non-traditional nurse training programs. It also comes as the Vision Centre strengthens its development of university programs that will train future nursing home leaders.

The moves reflect a new reality that tomorrow’s workers may not come walking unbidden through nursing home doors or advance from within the building. Instead, higher education may provide the skill sets and cache needed to sustain workforce growth.

Student recruitment in the new Georgia program will focus on engaging high schools and career academies to introduce students to CNA career pathways. This will include speaking opportunities at various schools, targeted advertising efforts and traditional recruitment investments, such as college fairs.

“I think a lot of people really don’t know about this field, and the work we’re doing can help get the word out about the profession, what it is, how valuable it is, and how needed it is,” said Curt Harris, director of the Institute for Disaster Management and lead investigator. “It’s a meaningful career.”

The program will introduce financial perks to increase interest that can be used at different points through students’ paths, including after they accept positions at long-term care facilities. Pre-pandemic data has shown the annual turnover for CNAs can be as high as 90%. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the pressure.

“CNAs are immensely important to a long-term care facility, and they just don’t have enough frankly,” said program coordinator Austin Dobbs. “It’s hard to pull people into the community due to misconceptions – low wages and other various reasons – some of which we’re trying to get at with this grant.”

To improve retention, the initiative is coordinating with Central Georgia Technical College and Georgia Health Care Association to create a curriculum to promote workforce development and career opportunities for current CNAs. The group is also developing a mental health support team for facility staff and preparing infection prevention toolkits to help with disease outbreaks.