Column: College working to help meet demands for health-care workers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 14, 2004

By Terry Leas, Riverland College president

In this year’s legislative session, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System seeks $274.9 million for renovation and building projects on campuses across the state. The system’s request includes a $5.1-million project for Riverland Community College to remodel more than 27,000 square feet of lab and classroom space to accommodate growing nursing and other allied health-care career training and science

transfer courses at the Albert Lea and Austin facilities.

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Highly trained health-care professionals are critically important statewide, and Minnesota state colleges and universities play an important role in preparing competent professionals.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities educate 78 percent of the state’s new nursing graduates each year. Even so, the state continues to face a severe shortage of nurses, and these programs have become increasingly important.

Locally, the Workforce Center estimates a 43 percent greater need for health-care professionals over the next 10 years in southeast Minnesota.

Besides Albert Lea, Austin, and Owatonna health-care enterprises, which have announced critical needs for nurses and radiography technicians, 180 health-care workers board buses each day in Austin to work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Albert Lea, Austin, and Owatonna clinics and hospital have generously helped our nursing and other allied health programs by donating equipment, staff, and money. In addition, they provided clinical experience for students and funding in fiscal year 2002 to furnish a nursing lab and instructional classroom. Despite their generous efforts to help, our local medical officials cannot underwrite the cost of health-care education. The major responsibility belongs to our state legislature.

Fortunately, our local legislators understand and support the need.

Riverland’s science labs have not been remodeled since they were built in the late 1960s. Ventilation in all the labs, particularly chemistry, is inadequate and is a health concern for the faculty and students.

Throughout the years, dangerous mixtures of chemicals have seeped into porous surfaces on countertops, cabinets, and floors. Some cabinets and all of the fume hoods have asbestos liners. We must update all labs to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and we need to expand our labs to provide the minimum National Science Foundation standard of space per student to promote safety and better learning.

Enrollment growth is putting a strain on our facilities. Consider that total enrollment at Riverland has increased 115 percent in the last six years. Enrollment in chemistry and biology programs is up more than 160 percent in the same period. The demand is greater than our current facilities can meet because our facilities were never designed for these numbers of students.

The challenge is enormous.

In the next 24 months, the Albert Lea Medical Center alone will need 60 new nurses; 200 nurses in the next five years. Austin and Owatonna face similar challenges.

If Riverland Community College is to help meet the growing demand for health-care workers, it must have the quality and capacity to produce competent professionals. Our health care needs depend on it!

(Dr. Terrence (Terry) Leas is the president of Riverland Community College.)