HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, hoping to promote his record on producing high-wage jobs, convened a round-table discussion at Montana Tech on Tuesday to address the state’s growing need for more health care workers.
The event gave Bullock the opportunity to highlight his administration’s work on creating higher-paying jobs — a point of attack being used by Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte to criticize the governor’s handling of the economy.
“We know the need’s going to be there. Now what we need to do is encourage folks to go into these jobs, and encourage them to avail of these opportunities,” Bullock said.
Bullock touted the work of the HealthCARE Montana Program, a project focused on training, recruiting and retaining health care workers.
In 2014, the health care industry employed 67,000 people in Montana — making it the state’s largest employment sector. The average pay for a registered nurse in Montana is $61,810 a year — substantially higher than the $39,880 average wage reported for Montana by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“No matter what numbers you look at, once you get outside of Bullock’s bubble and actually talk to Montanans, it is obvious that Montana families are struggling. Greg’s message is clearly resonating as he talks about creating more high-wage jobs to keep our kids in Montana,” Gianforte spokesman Aaron Flint said.
Since announcing his campaign for governor last month, Gianforte has sought to take the sheen off the state’s mostly glowing economy, saying that Bullock has not done enough to boost wages and create opportunities for high-paying jobs for the state’s youth.
Politics aside, the state faces real challenges in addressing a potential shortage of health care workers.
Those challenges were underscored in the town of Lincoln, which is losing its only doctor in June. In a story published Tuesday by the Missoulian, officials at the local hospital acknowledged the difficulty in recruiting a new doctor.
Despite the increasing demand for health care workers, hospitals can’t always attract applicants — a scenario that plays out in rural areas across the U.S.
Montana’s health care industry is predicted to add about 1,300 new jobs each year through 2024, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. More than half of those openings are expected to be for nurses.
Of those, about 376 new registered nurses will be needed each year — 199 of those jobs new positions and 177 replacement employees for retiring RNs.
Karen VanDaveer, Montana Tech’s nursing director, said it was critical to train more young people to enter the nursing profession. Last month, the school began a four-year nursing program. She said the need is especially sharp in rural areas, many of which are struggling to draw — and retain — health care workers.
“One of the challenges is trying to figure out how we get nurses to relocate to rural areas, or grow our own nurses so they stay in the communities they live in,” VanDaveer said.
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