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People with disabilities, health care field see job shortage solution with new credential program at Nicolet CollegeSubmitted: 12/19/2016

Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter
bmeyer@wjfw.com


RHINELANDER - Advocacy groups, students, and health care systems think the math seems simple.

According to a group called The Arc Wisconsin, only 20 percent of people with disabilities in the state are active in the workforce.

Meanwhile, the health care industry keeps falling far short of the workers it needs.


People like the five students in Rhinelander may be a solution to the puzzle. The five will get a brand-new credential from Nicolet College this month.

Ashley Mathy is one of those five, about to complete training for a Health Care Assistant credential. All five in the semester-long class are students with disabilities. They've spent the semester working on various skills.

"Handwashing, standard precautions, what to do if there was something with blood," Mathy said, listing off examples.

The new Health Care Assistant credential offered by Nicolet College is notch below a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Mathy may or may not end up working in health care. But if she does take that route, Kristine Zelechowski would love to hire someone like her.

"It's that simple. There are not enough [health care workers] to go around," said Zelechowski, the nursing home administrator at AGI Healthcare of Crandon.

Zelechowski needs more CNAs, but she also likes that Nicolet College started the Health Care Assistant training.

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "I am in full support of it."

Zelechowski is not alone among health care administrators feeling the pinch of a workforce too small to meet needs.

"We're seeing that there's a huge void in the workforce, especially in the health care field, especially in rural areas of the state," said Beth Moss, who works for the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.

It's one reason Moss and other advocates want to see the Health Care Assistant program expand beyond the Northwoods.

"We've seen that this can be successful," Moss said. "This is a wonderful test case. We feel it can be replicated. There is interest and there is need."

Nicolet College piloted the program this fall. Now, disability groups are pushing lawmakers to expand it to five more tech colleges in Wisconsin.

"It would be a very small step to take that statewide so other technical colleges could offer this credential as well," Moss said.

To another disability advocacy group, The Arc Wisconsin, the logic behind the match is perfect.

"First of all, you have this untapped workforce, people with disabilities who want to be employed and are not employed at the rate we want," said Lisa Pugh, the group's state director. "And the other one, there's this crisis in the direct care workforce industry."

The match makes sense, too, for students like Ashley Mathy.

"The sky is the limit," she said. "If anybody without a disability or with a disability wants to do something, if people tell you you can't do something, you just prove them wrong every time."

State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and state Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) heard from students and advocacy groups at Nicolet College on Friday. Advocates are pushing lawmakers to approve $25,000 from the state to expand the Health Care Assistant program to five more tech colleges. They hope that money can be included in the upcoming state budget.

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