GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — During her 12-hour overnight shift, Brianna Shelton helps residents at BeeHive Homes Assisted Living go to the bathroom. Many of them have dementia, and some can’t get out of bed on their own. Only a few can remember her name, but that doesn’t matter to her.
“They’re somebody’s mom, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s great-grandmother,” Shelton said. “I want to take care of them like I would take care of my family.”
Shelton trained to be a personal care aide through an apprenticeship program designed to meet the increasing need for health care workers in rural western Colorado. Here, far from Denver’s bustling urban corridor, worker shortages mount as baby boomers retire, young people move away from these older communities, and demand for health care in homes and facilities rises.
Rural areas often have larger shares of residents who are 65 or older than urban areas do. And the most rural regions have relatively fewer direct care workers, like personal care aides, to help people with disabilities than less-rural regions do, according to a recent study in the journal Health Affairs.
Besides increasing the number of direct care workers, the Colorado apprenticeship program offers opportunities for improving earning power to residents who live at or below the poverty line, who lost their jobs during the covid-19 pandemic, or who are unemployed or underemployed. They train to become personal care aides, who help patients with daily tasks such as bathing or housekeeping, or certified nursing assistants, who can provide some direct health care, like checking blood pressure.
Apprentices take training classes at Western Colorado Area Health Education Center in Grand Junction, and the center pays for students who live in more rural areas to attend classes at Technical College of the Rockies in Delta County. The apprentices receive on-the-job training with one of 58 local employers — an assisted living facility, for example — and they are required to work there for one year. Each apprentice has an employer mentor. Staff members at Western Colorado AHEC also provide mentorship, plus the center has a life coach on hand.
“We really just want students to get into health care, get jobs, and retain those jobs,” said Georgia Hoaglund, executive director of Western Colorado AHEC, which has 210 active apprentices and was bolstered by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Labor Department in 2021.
Some apprentices are recent high school graduates. Others are single mothers or veterans. They often have educational or economic barriers to employment. Hoaglund and her staff of 10 buy the apprentices scrubs so they can start new jobs with the right uniforms; otherwise, they might not be able to afford them. Staff members pay for apprentices’ gas if they can’t afford to fill up their tanks to drive to work. They talk to apprentices on the phone monthly, sometimes weekly.
Even though the apprenticeship program gives these workers a solid start, the jobs can be stressful, and burnout and low pay are the norm. Career advancement is another obstacle, said Hoaglund, because of the logistics or cost of higher education. Hoaglund, who calls her staff family and some of the apprentices her kids, dreams of offering more advanced training — in nursing, for example — with scholarship money.
Apprenticeships are perhaps better known as a workforce training tool among electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other tradespeople. But they are also viewed as a way of building a needed pipeline of direct care health workers, said Robyn Stone, senior vice president for research at LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services.