Youth Nursing Programs Training Tomorrow’s Workforce 

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Locally and nationally, health-care professionals are examining, exploring and expanding their practices to staunch the statistical bleeding of hospital nurses who are exiting the field due to retirement and other factors.

New strategies are deemed necessary to replenish a dwindling workforce.

The decline in those choosing a traditional nursing career predates the scourge of COVID-19. According to data from the American Nurses Association, by next year, Registered Nursing jobs will far outnumber those of any other profession, exceeding 100,000 vacancies per year. This shortfall is due largely to the U.S.’ burgeoning aging population and its health needs, along with approximately a half-million RNs themselves projected to retire by the end of 2022. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a need for more than one million RNs to replace them.

“Statistics I’ve read say that by 2023, the United States will be one million nurses short,” Thomas Health Clinical Resources Director Sandy Young said. “We thought that was going to start decreasing; we’ve been in this shortage for several years.

“There are several theories why this is happening,” she said. “One is that the average age of a nurse continues to go up; the average nurse now is 50 years old. We’re getting older and approaching retirement.

“There are also a lot more opportunities, like telehealth, for nurses not at the bedside. Insurance companies are hiring nurses as case managers to follow up with patients and their well-being. We’re promoting health and wellness more [outside the hospital setting]. That creates more opportunities to work from your home or in the community or in someone else’s home, with health care moving away from a hospital setting to a community one,” Young said.

She said others with the interest in and training for hospital-based nursing careers are opting to become nurse practitioners to assist primary-care physicians. Many nursing schools have become limited as to the number of students they can have now, as well, she added.

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CPR instructor Ben Priddy (center), an RN at Thomas Health, explains how a defibrillator works. Looking on are students Mitchell DeFrehn and Makenna Brown.

“Lots of people are being pulled away from the bedside. One thing I try to emphasize with students in my academies is that we need you at the bedside. You need to come to the bedside, gain some skills and knowledge there and then look at these other opportunities.”

Youth nursing academies

For several years, area medical centers such as Thomas Health and CAMC, and others throughout the state, such as Raleigh General Hospital and Princeton Community Hospital, have endeavored to provide a panacea, in some measure, to the escalating nursing shortage, through their annual youth training academies.

Launched a decade ago to introduce middle and high school students to the nursing profession and, potentially, inspire and encourage career paths within the health-care field, the Thomas Health Junior and Senior Nursing Academies returned this summer to Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston. CAMC’s Junior Nursing Academy gets underway next week in Charleston (see related article).

The first of Thomas’ 2021 Nursing Academies occurred in June. The second round of academies took place this week and concludes today. The third and final sessions will be conducted July 27 through July 30.

To adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines, enrollment size was reduced for this year’s programs and this year’s student rosters were filled well in advance. This week’s enrollment entailed 93 Junior Academy and 60 Senior Academy students.

During each four-day session, academy students participate in a combination of hands-on activities and classroom-based education. The Junior Academy programs are designed for middle and rising high school students, while Senior Academy courses are tailored for high school students.

The Thomas Health Foundation has partnered with Thomas Health’s nursing staff to fund, fund raise and promote the academies each year since the programs’ outset.

“The Thomas Health Foundation is pleased to provide financial support to host the annual Thomas Health Nursing Academy,” Thomas Health Foundation Executive Director Lisa Lopinsky said. “Introducing young people to the health system and how it operates will not only provide them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it will also encourage them to consider health care as their profession.”

Learning the hospital environment 

Young has overseen the Nursing Academy programs at Thomas Memorial since their inception and has seen positive results toward countering the nursing career drought over the past decade.

“In 2011, the West Virginia Center for Nursing sent out the idea of creating nursing academies to promote nursing to young people,” Young said. “It was sent to all of the hospitals and schools of nursing to see if anyone was interested in doing this summer camp concept for the nursing profession.”

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Linda Sprouse of Kanawha City, a CNA at Thomas Health, hands Madisyn Spangler an object that she must identify with her eyes closed.

Thomas got a team together. The first year drew 56 students to both Thomas Health youth academies. Since then, Young said, almost exactly 1,000 students have attended, with the academies’ curricula and approaches evolving along the way.

“Initially, we wanted to teach some basic nursing skills, some assessment of vital signs, how the heart works, assessing lung sounds, blood pressure — more of introducing them to nursing and the hospital setting,” Young explained.

The academies also serve as an introduction to the overall, day-to-day hospital environment for most enrollees, she added.

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Mitchell DeFrehn applies chest compression during a CPR class at this week’s Thomas Health nursing academy.

“The academies have evolved over the years to add some things. At the Senior Academies now, we actually put these students at the arm of a nurse or other health-care professional where they get to see it from the patient side. In the Junior Academies, there are hands-on things like skills labs and fun-type activities.”

Students come from throughout the state and beyond to attend, some staying with family members during the week to shorten their commute. Most come from the southern part of the state, but one traveled from Connecticut. “Her grandmother was one of our physicians,” Young said.

Many Junior Academy students return for the Senior Academy the following year as well. “The first year, they’re in the Junior Academy, wanting to learn about the nursing profession. The second year, they have a strong desire to get into the medical profession. We also started inviting vo-tech school students to come in and shadow,” Young said.

A gateway to nursing careers

The academies have been a springboard into full-time health-care careers for many of their alumni during the past decade, helping alleviate the nursing career drain. “Some are in nursing school, some are working in patient care areas while going to nursing school and some are in the registration or medical records areas. Currently, six of them are now employed at Thomas,” Young said.

She surveyed former academy attendees via social media recently. “As of last night, we’re right at 50 students that have gone through the academies, and they are either nurses or in a nursing program or in some kind of health-care program like imaging, pharmacy, even music therapy school. I’d say 90 to 99% of them are in nursing, though.”

Along with adhering to pandemic safety caveats still in effect, 2021’s Thomas Health academy students are learning more about the nursing profession since last year’s COVID-19 outbreak (which prevented the 2020 sessions).

“Even before COVID-19 happened, students were taught how to put on gowns, masks and gloves and about the importance of protection [during the academies],” Young said. “Now, we’re discussing how COVID-19 did impact so many different people last year and also how nurses found ways to make sure patients got the care they needed while preserving our personal protection equipment when we had a shortage.”

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Students attending this week’s nursing academy at Thomas Health included (from right) Madisyn Spangler, Allison Granata, Mackenzie Connard and Jenna Hill.

She takes a philosophical view of the pandemic.

“It was the Ebola virus a few years ago and SARS before that,” Young said. “There’s always a new disease to learn about, and nursing itself is a profession where you’re always learning new things and being innovative.”

Bridging financial barriers

Students are asked to keep a journal during the academy. Each day the students are asked a “question of reflection.” They write the answers in their journals.

“One of the questions we ask is, ‘What would stop you from going into the nursing profession?’” Young said. “It hurts when they say, ‘I don’t think my family can afford for me to go to college.’”

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Jenna Hill inflates an air mattress as part of her training at this week’s Thomas Health nursing academy. Looking on is instructor Carah Painter of Hurricane, an RN at Thomas Health.

Through the Thomas Health Foundation and other corporate and community support, Thomas offers students scholarships.

“They can apply here for scholarships during the academies. Most hospitals in the area do similar things. If you work for us for a certain period of time, that pays the scholarship off.”

The nursing scholarships recently have been increased, she added.

“The Thomas Health Foundation provides the scholarships and for the bulk of the academy programs. The West Virginia Center for Nursing has given us grants since the beginning, too. It’s an extension of a program the Center for Nursing developed with the Legislature, to initially look at the nursing shortage. Ten dollars of every nurse’s license fee goes to the Center to study the nursing shortage and to look for ways to improve the nursing situation in West Virginia,” Young said.

While the goal is to get more young people into the field, the training staff doesn’t pretend that nursing is an easy job. “It’s physically strenuous and it can be mentally strenuous some days. It can be a challenge, and we make sure students understand that, too,” Young said.

“It’s not always fun and games, but it’s very rewarding. What other professions let you get to do so many things in one day?”

Additional information about the Nursing Academy programs and scholarship opportunities can be found at