School helps fill shortage of CNAs

August 6th, 2018

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Premier Nursing Academy's students aren't the only ones learning lessons there.

The local school's founder, Chris Palevich, learned a big one soon after opening the academy last year.

By accepting anyone who wanted to enroll in a five-week course designed to train students as nursing assistants, Palevich maximized the academy's income. Even applicants with minimal chance of success were enrolled because tuition is paid by local employers willing to invest in future workers' training.

Some students who weren't qualified academically or motivated to study were allowed to enroll. Employers were frustrated because many students who passed academy classes failed to pass the state certification exam to become a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. Palevich responded with a new strategy.

Since adopting a screening process 12 months ago, Premier Nursing now graduates 40 to 50 students every five weeks. With quality graduates, the academy could become a critical pipeline for local employers. The Hoosier Hot 50 Jobs, a list created by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, includes registered nurse among the fastest-growing, high-wage jobs in the state based on expected demand into 2022.

Students often pursue CNA licenses on the way to becoming registered nurses, Palevich said. As certified nursing assistants move up the career ladder to become registered nurses with associate and bachelor's degrees, jobs open for more CNAs, he said.

With five Indiana locations already operating, Palevich's Premier Nursing is expanding southward. He will invest $1.5 million to open a 4,000-square-foot school in Tampa, Florida, near the University of Southern Florida and expand the local school to 4,500 square feet from 2,000. The Fort Wayne location is in leased space at 3201 Stellhorn Road in the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center.

Revised formula

Demand for Premier Nursing's CNA course is strong in Florida.

When the Fort Wayne school puts out a call for interested students, it usually receives 30 to 40 replies in a week. But when officials put out a similar request in Tampa, they received 180 responses over the same time span, Palevich said, adding that he is thinking about adding a second location there.

Palevich is moving to Florida to launch the program.

Using the revised admissions formula, tuition is still paid by prospective employers, but students are asked to pay $50 for books and uniforms called scrubs. Premier Nursing officials said students show more commitment when they have made at least a modest investment in their education.

But candidate screening comes first, regardless of which location they apply to.

Applicants who go to the Premier Nursing website are asked to watch a 16-minute video and answer a few questions about it. They are given a math test and only two chances to pass.

Potential students are also asked to read a 12-slide presentation detailing program expectations. Any absence must be documented and the time must be made up, for example.

Juli Murphy, a registered nurse and the school's program director, weeds through the responses to decide whom to call in for in-person interviews.

Candidates' expectations of the job are also important, Murphy said. They need to understand the work can involve changing dirty bedpans, but duties also include helping patients eat and bathe, taking vital signs and helping with some basic medical procedures.

Not all patients are elderly, however. Some are in facilities while undergoing rehabilitation treatments following joint replacement surgeries, among other reasons, Palevich said.

About half the program's applicants don't make it through the screening. The approach is necessary because employers don't want to deal with underperformers, Murphy said.

“I had to get that hard shell of being able to say 'no' to people,” Murphy said. “I'm able to say, 'I don't think this will be a good fit for you.'”

After that, applicants must interview with an employer to secure a sponsorship. Kingston Care Center has sponsored five students each five-week session for the past several months, administrator Molly Linder said.

“They do a really good job,” she said of Premier Nursing instructors. “Their success rate of passing students is very high.”

So far this year, 160 Premier Nursing graduates have passed the state's CNA test, for a 63 percent passing rate, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health. Statewide, including all types of training programs, 2,991 students have taken the test this year with a 79 percent overall passing rate.

The exam includes three parts: written, skills demonstration and hand washing.

Vocational option

Another factor fueling the academy's local growth is an agreement to enroll about 50 East Allen County Schools high school students in a half-day vocational training in the fall.

They will spend the other half-day at school, taking normal high school classes. The training includes both classroom and hands-on components.

Premier Nursing will enroll about 120 high school students this fall in a comparable program at the Elkhart Area Career Center. The academy also offers classes in South Bend, Goshen and Greencastle. Palevich expects to open a school in Indianapolis before the end of this year.

In Fort Wayne, nursing homes are the primary employers seeking CNAs. But in markets including Elkhart and South Bend, hospitals are hiring certified nursing assistants.

As the employer, they are the ones who do final applicant interviews and criminal background checks.

In Fort Wayne, health care facilities pay $1,000 in tuition, but Palevich plans to charge $1,500 to $2,000 for each Florida student because he expects to pay teachers more in that market.

In exchange for receiving free certification, CNAs agree to work for their sponsor facility for at least six months. If they fail to fulfill that promise, they are legally required to reimburse the employer.

High school students taking vocational training through Premier Nursing aren't held to the same commitment, Palevich said. Some are expected to head to college campuses in the fall but have the option of working in a local nursing home during school breaks or even during the semester wherever their university is located.

Certified nursing assistants earn about $12 an hour in the Fort Wayne market and $15 in Goshen, Palevich said.

Linder, of Kingston Care Center, described sponsoring certified nursing assistant students as a great recruitment opportunity.

“It's a super tough market, and the turnover in the CNA position is high,” she said.

Sponsoring the best, most-motivated candidates also results in high-quality results, Linder said.

“It's pretty strategic,” she added. “And it seems to be working.”