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Healthcare Workforce Training Institute aims to address healthcare shortages

The organization offers healthcare-related training throughout West Central Wisconsin

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January 22, 2024

EAU CLAIRE – It’s no secret the healthcare industry is experiencing workforce shortages like never before.

And while the nation’s aging population continues to grow, the number of healthcare workers – especially those who work with that demographic – cannot keep up with the demand. 

Consider these facts from the Long-Term Care Workforce Crisis 2021 Report that looked at a coalition of provider associations:

  • 40% of long-term care providers reported staff vacancy rates of more than 30%
  • There are 23,165 vacant caregiver positions in Wisconsin care facilities, up from 16,500 in 2018
  • 43% of Wisconsin providers are limiting admissions of residents/patients because of staffing vacancies
  • The percentage of people in Wisconsin age 85 and older is projected to increase 112% in the next 20 years

Staffing shortages are not only concerning for providers, but for patients who need care and are having to wait long periods or travel miles from their homes to get care, or worse yet, simply can’t get the care they need.

The Healthcare Workforce Training Institute in Eau Claire is doing what it can to help address the regional shortage.

Paula Gibson, director and certified virtual dementia tour trainer, said the institute was founded with the mission of increasing and advancing the next-generation healthcare workforce and caregivers in Northwest Wisconsin by taking an active, hands-on approach to provide accessible, quality training and healthcare certifications for those individuals seeking that kind of training.

“Our goal is to have a well-trained, readily-available workforce to meet whatever kind of care needed in our communities,” she said. “We don’t want (the healthcare field) to always have staffing issues.”

The education the institute provides, Gibson said, includes training for individuals pursuing careers as certified nursing assistants (CNAs), nurse aides or certified medication aides, as well as those seeking community-based residential facility (CBRF) training (fire safety, first aid, choking and standard precaution), American Red Cross first aid and CPR training and virtual dementia tours.

“Those are our main classes,” she said. “We’ve done a lot to develop those so we can offer them quickly in various parts of the state. We’re able to get the CNA classes done in two to three weeks – two weeks of day classes or three weeks of night classes. That has been a big benefit in our community.”

Gibson said it typically takes six to 14 weeks to get through the CNA class at a technical college.

“In the last 19 months, we’ve graduated 578 nurse aids, which is a lot more than what was happening in this area before,” she said. “Our goal in our first year was to hit 200, and we had 337 in our first year. So, we’ve been exploding in terms of being able to help people, and we’re opening new education centers.”

How the institute got its start

Gibson said the institute got its start in Eau Claire through the Dove Healthcare Foundation.

“With (the foundation) coming up with this idea, we needed to start in this neck of the woods,” she said. “So, this is where our headquarters are, and this is the main location, but we can and do work out of any site (where there’s a need).”

Gibson said the foundation wanted to impact more of the community and get more people involved in the field of health care.

“Basically, they shut down their education department at Dove Healthcare and allowed us to start the institute,” she said. “That meant we had to redo all the curriculum, get state approval for all of our courses, hire educators and those kinds of things. That took about six months.”

Gibson said the institute held its first training June 1, 2022.

“Dove Healthcare had educators so I was able to bring them into the institute,” she said.

The foundation’s board, Gibson said, approved healthcare workforce advancement as a priority initiative and formally established the Healthcare Workforce Training Institute in late 2021.

The Healthcare Workforce Training Institute, she said, was formally established as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in September 2023.

Gibson said the institute standardized the curriculum Dove had been using, then had it re-approved by the state for nurse aid training and medication aid training.

The center also has assisted-living, community-based required training available, as well as American Red Cross training for both professionals and the community. 

“We offer classes nurses can benefit from, for instance, our American Red Cross Basic Life Support class,” she said. “You have to, as a nurse, have that class every two years to keep your license.”

More training centers being added all the time

When the institute started, Gibson said instructors were teaching classes year-round in multiple communities, including Bloomer, Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Osseo and Rice Lake. 

The center has since added CNA testing in Frederic, will open another training center in Menomonie soon and is looking to grow beyond that to help providers who cannot make this happen where they’re at.

“In March, we’ll be offering our first class in our new Menomonie education center,” she said. “We’ll be offering CNA classes, and potentially the American Red Cross classes – possibly even the medication administration class in the future.”

Gibson said the center services hubs where instructors can go in and do classes and the clinical requirements for our students are right there on site, “which is a big benefit.” 

Though some classes are taught solely in person, like the CNA classes, Gibson said some classes are taught virtually and others in a hybrid format.

She said it depends on the kind of class it is and what the state requirements might be for such a class.

“All of our online classes are instructor-led,” she said. “You come at a certain time and there’s an instructor in our virtual lab teaching people. It’s interactive, so we have everything from whiteboards and online canvasses we use to teach from so our students are interacting with our screens here.”

Gibson said the center currently has a trainer in New Glarus who provides the in-person medication aid class for its employees.

“Because they had so many of them, we could send an instructor down versus having all of them come up to us,” she said. “That’s another beauty of our institute – we can go anywhere.”

Already realizing tremendous results

When a CNA graduates from the institute’s class, Gibson said they are required to take a state test.

“There’s two parts to it – one is knowledge, which is done online and there’s a skills test where you have to go to a place and be tested,” she said. “We now have three testing sites.”

In the year before the institute took over, Gibson said those three testing sites offered 18 dates for testing.

“In the last 19 months, we offered more than 100 dates for testing,” she said. “On average, we’re seeing about 10-16 students coming from all across the state – including Milwaukee, Superior, all over Door County, all over the place – to take tests because they can’t get them in their local area. Ours are completely open and available (to everyone).”

Gibson said the center estimates about 1,400 CNAs have been tested through the center’s testing sites so far.

“We just host the site – there’s an outside tester who comes in and uses it,” she said. “But by doing this, we’ve been able to get a lot more people into the workforce quicker.”

Though Gibson said she knows of a couple of private individuals who teach CNA classes, she’s not aware of other institutes or schools like theirs – describing the center “kind of like trailblazers,” specifically in how it operates.

In 174 classes alone, Gibson said the center has served more than 1,300 students in the last 19 months.

Adding in the presentations the center has done, she said that number is more than 2,000 students.

The center’s participant pool, Gibson said, has students from 133 communities throughout the state, 15 Minnesota communities, as well as students from Illinois, North Carolina, Colorado and Quebec, Canada.

“Considering we are a team of 14, I think that’s good – and only five of us are full-time,” she said. “The rest are part-time or as-needed only at this point. Our goal was that in five years, we’d become our own standalone nonprofit, and we accomplished that after 19 months.”

Gibson said she isn’t aware of another organization in the State of Wisconsin doing what the institute is doing, “especially the all-hands-on class.”

“Some do video learning, but honestly, this is a people profession,” she said. “We want to stick with that as much as we can.”

The center, Gibson said, currently works with 75 providers across the state – some of which have already seen a decrease in their shortages because they can get CNAs trained and certified quicker.

“They’re at least able to take a breath,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re hearing in other places.”

In this together

For the institute to continue to realize and advance its mission, Gibson said it must hire more instructors and expand class offerings, including its hybrid learning.

Additionally, she said, class fees are sometimes a deterrent for those wishing to take a class.

Gibson said the center has been working to secure grants, donations and contracts with other entities or private individuals to provide additional educational opportunities to assist individuals in meeting their healthcare career goals.

Last fall, the institute received a $75,000 Capacity Building grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) – which Gibson said allowed the center to provide virtual and hybrid training programs for students who would otherwise be unable to access their services.

“Technical colleges and other colleges get state funding, but we do not,” she said. “So, we’re looking for investors to make financial contributions so we can continue to keep class costs low so those students who may be paying privately can afford to come, as well as those providers who want to have these classes available to their employees can do so.”

Gibson said the center continues to look for investors to help grow its curriculums “because it does cost money to create curriculums.”

“Besides the WEDC grant, we have gotten grants from the RCU Community Foundation and Bader Philanthropies, but we’re also looking at writing other grants to get money to help offset some costs,” she said. 

One thing Gibson said she wants people to know is they are open to anyone who needs them.

“Our goal is to increase and advance the healthcare workforce in Wisconsin,” she said. “We want to make sure we have high-quality and accessible certifications and training. So, if there is a need out there, we’re always looking to grow in terms of the curriculums we offer.”

Gibson said the center is also looking at developing a curriculum for specialized-care skills, assisted living administration and other high-demand topics.

“We know there’s a need for more dementia training, which is what we’re developing now,” she said. “We’re in the pilot process but hope to have it available to the public in early spring. From there, we’re looking at different ways we can help people access learning that either enters them into the field of health care or keeps them in the field of health care.”

For more information on the Healthcare Workforce Training Institute, visit

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