How executives are preparing for the workforce of the future

Today's healthcare environment includes new dynamics in the workforce that have become prominent. Workers are thinking about their jobs and futures differently, with some leaving their roles for different opportunities and various other reasons. They also have different expectations in terms of their workplace environment. 

At the same time, there are projected labor shortages for a number of healthcare roles by 2031. Projections, for example, show the U.S. will need more than a million more nurses by that time, but more than 80 percent of positions will be left unfilled, according to a Sept. 29 report from McKinsey & Co. 

Still, a bright spot recently emerged in a new analysis from Altarum. The analysis of monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data found that healthcare employment is 3.2 percent above where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began in February 2020 and now is above the 2.6 percent increase in non-healthcare employment over the same period. Hospital employment specifically is 2.1 percent above its pre-pandemic level, and ambulatory care setting employment is 7.8 percent higher. At the same time, employment in nursing and residential care is 5.7 percent lower than its pre-pandemic level.

The changing dynamics and trends prompted Becker's to ask health system executives: What do you envision the healthcare workforce will look like in five years in terms of composition and shortages? How is your organization preparing? Respondents touched on issues such as providing flexibility and opportunities to upskill.

Note: Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kathleen Sanford, DBA, RN. Executive Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer of CommonSpirit Health (Chicago): We have been watching the nursing shortage trend upward for decades across the industry, and we're working hard to address it at CommonSpirit Health. We have implemented several initiatives to support our nurses and build the workforce.

We have launched a yearlong, multidisciplinary residency program for nursing aiming to help address the high rate of turnover in the first year for nursing new grads. We started our own staffing agency so nurses could travel without losing their seniority. We are also scaling our virtual nursing program across our national footprint. Virtually integrated care is key to addressing the nursing shortage. Some nurses choose virtual nursing as part of their career progression while others choose to be on-site, hands-on nurses, but they work together as a team to meet all the needs of their patients. Additionally, nurses who have many years experience but are unable to continue the physical requirements of on-site nursing have the opportunity to extend their careers through virtual nursing.

We have listened to our nursing workforce and built a long-term vision and strategy around their feedback. We are proud to offer programs that focus on caregiver wellness and mental health, as well as programs to help build nursing careers and provide opportunities for learning and growth within the organization. We hear the desire to ensure our caregivers better reflect the diverse communities they serve, and have engaged in partnerships with academic medical centers to provide opportunities for more medical and nursing students. We are tremendously grateful for everything our nurses do every day to care for our communities, and support the growth of this critical profession.

Amy Santorelli. Associate Chief People Officer of AdventHealth Central Florida (Orlando): We think flexibility will be important to our workforce in the years to come. Team members are asking us for roles that might be outside of the regular model of full-time employees working regular shifts, so we're adjusting to meet people where they are. Our workforce needs are growing rapidly, so we're inviting people to join us wherever they are in their career journey and grow their skills with us to meet future needs. Through our own AdventHealth University and a robust network of educational partnerships and tuition reimbursement, we're upskilling our current workforce and hiring people with the intent of growing their skillset to fill future needs. We know that the future workforce will need to interact with technology even more than they do today — so we're making sure our teams have the tools and skills to be on the cutting edge of innovation.

Craig Stambaugh. Vice President of Human Resources for UPMC Health Services Division (Pittsburgh): After years of unprecedented challenges and changes introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare workforce will be on a forward path toward rebuilding. Flexibility, career development, and skill refinement are matters of significant importance. Once shuttered trainings and schools reopen and expand, our pipelines will be stronger than they are today.

As baby boomers retire, we will continue to see a demographic shift in key roles, such as nursing and skilled technicians. Future generations, smaller in size, will seek to blend their work lives with their overall lives and prioritize harmony to an even greater degree, with careers that provide this flexibility.

Additionally, all healthcare entities will seek ways to deliver care as cost-efficiently as possible, with less care provided in traditional hospital settings. This will create vast opportunities for staff to contribute in new ways with a renewed focus on access, convenience, speed, innovation and customer orientation as keys to success. We will also see innovative, reliable and safe team-based models of care that adapt with available resources in the market.

To prepare, UPMC is working within our communities, with both local schools and our in-house schools, to rebuild our pipelines for key roles and career opportunities. We are also concentrating efforts on hiring available talent in the market. Once employed, we work to upskill our staff through continuing education into areas of scarcity, such as nursing and allied health.

We are providing ongoing development and promotional opportunities to employees. We wrap our compensation, benefits, performance, recognition, work-life balance, development and career opportunities into what we call "Total Rewards," which includes wages and benefits. Also of note, we have a path to $18 per hour as our starting wage in most of our facilities by January 2025.

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