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8 significant healthcare workforce trends

It's no secret the industry's labor force is possibly its most costly expense. But with the lack of professionals and a disconcerting future, the fears surrounding the healthcare labor force are extending beyond cost.

Clinton Wingrove, EVP and principal consultant at Pilat HR Solutions, thinks, though, lessons can be learned from the various issues industry leaders are facing. Whether its recruiting or training, or dealing with the incoming millennial workers, he outlines eight trends concerning the changing healthcare workforce. 

1. The retirement of the baby boomer generation and the lack of new talent. And this trend isn’t specific to healthcare, Wingrove said. “Many industries are facing some huge challenges, not least of which is seeing a serious increase in the number of older people - the baby boomers - backing out of the workforce.” He added issues arise when organizations, in particular those in the healthcare realm, have skilled senior people as opposed to “generalists.” “They’re looking to retain that experience,” he said. “So there’s a bit of tension there. You have people who are skilled managerial staff and are generalists who you can replace more easily, and then you have senior people.” Retaining experience is critical, said Wingrove, and in some fields, like healthcare, “we’re not seeing sufficient talent come through.”

2. The shortage of skilled health IT professionals. There’s no surprise a major trend in today’s workforce is the lack of IT professionals. “It seems as though we’re suffering a shortage of the very skilled talent and the highly skilled programmers, clinicians and technicians,” said Wingrove. “As we see healthcare continue, it’s not literally exponential, but as we see the sophistication of healthcare grow much faster than the economy, the need for highly skilled talent is going to increase and outplace the availability.” 

[See also: Workforce planning crucial to physician recruitment.]

3. An impending trend of significant turnover. At the moment, said Wingrove, the industry is seeing “almost a perfect storm.” “Because of the recession, we have a lot of people nervous and consequently staying in their jobs. But we’re not seeing an increase in salaries, and so, there’s growing evidence there is a latent dissatisfaction and people are questioning whether loyalty makes sense anymore.” Add to that evidence of a growing belief that when the economy picks up, we’re bound to see major turnover, continued Wingrove. “They think the grass is greener on the other side, and that concerns me because in healthcare in particular, skilled workforce and proven experience is highly valuable for efficiency reasons. I do feel this year or next we’ll see some serious churn of staff combined with a lack of high caliber new talent coming through.”

4. The undertrained millennial generation. In addition to the lack of new talent entering the healthcare workforce, Wingrove said serious underlying issues exist when it comes to the country’s educational system. “I’m convinced we’re not doing enough to drive up the caliber of the people who are exiting the educational system and [are coming] into the workforce,” he said. There are two areas he believes we’re falling short: the actual skill level of recent graduates, and failing to encourage college students to pursue the more technical fields. “Now, I think it’s better than it was,” Wingrove said. “But I don’t believe we’re driving it fast enough - demand is going to continue, for the foreseeable future, to outstrip supply.”

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5. The changing future of healthcare leadership. Amidst the negative effects of the changing workforce on healthcare, said Wingrove, there is one positive change he believes will be seen. “Healthcare is one of the industries where it’s tended to have a relatively bureaucratic and traditional style of management,” he said. “Frankly, healthcare isn’t known for the quality of its management; healthcare is largely populated by experts in their fields, and that means they’re not great at general management and leadership.” But what’s going to happen, predicts Wingrove, concerns the younger generation stepping in to fill gaps. According to him, millennials are more demanding, more social and more connected. “They don’t recognize hierarchies and structures,” he said. “So I think it’s going to open up a lot more debate about more cross-functional work and creating more mobile workforces…the locus of power is going to change. If you go into a hospital now, the locus of power is with the clinicians and the senior leadership team. If you go into more contemporary organizations, like Google, the locus of power is with the employees.”

6. The rise of more open communication and collaboration. Younger employees, particularly those using social media, have a more open concept of communication, said Wingrove. “People, typically in their early 20s, don’t even recognize email as technology; everything is done through texting,” he said. “So, I think we’re going to see an opening up of communication and a much more fluid flow of information.” This will also include more innovation in areas that have been traditionally stagnant, he continued, like management, leadership and structure. In fact, a better sense of openness is going to address a significant issue of finding those who can fill leadership roles. “And IT isn’t exempt from that,” he said. “We’ve bred technically capable people, but we haven’t bred healthcare people, and we certainly haven’t bred business people. I think the younger generation is more willing to broaden their knowledge of expertise and skill…if they don’t have the information given to them, they’ll go find it.”

[See also: Workforce management tool helps rightsize nursing staff.]

7. The impact of company culture on recruitment and retainment. Although recruitment is clearly an issue, said Wingrove, the problem runs deeper. In fact, organizations can’t expect to solve their recruitment conundrums without having a culture and environment where people can excel and want to stay. “Recruiting people is only feeding one end of the pipeline that’s open at the other. An organization has to manage their entire pipeline of talent, where, if you’re going to bring the right people on board, you have to assimilate them into the organization and excite them enough to stay.” He said it’s crucial to develop a synergy between an organization’s engagement and retention strategies and its recruitment strategies, since, “you want to recruit people who are going to be relatively self motivated and independent: people who are going to view themselves as part of the business and not just as technical specialists, and then develop a leadership and management style that’s going to allow those people to feel respected - that’s adding value to the organization as a whole.” 

8. The younger generation’s desire to have a broader say in the business. “I do believe the younger generation coming in wants to have a broader say in the business,” said Wingrove. “If you bring someone in as a programmer, you shouldn’t assume they just want to be a programmer - they want to take an interest in why what they’re doing matters.” The newer generation doesn’t view their positions purely as jobs, continued Wingrove. Instead, they want to feel they’re part of the business, and therefore need to be encouraged to view themselves as part of a bigger team. “They’re not merely a programmer, an analyst or a clinician,” he said. “They’re part of a healthcare system, and that’s one of the things that’s going to differentiate between the organizations that are successful at attracting and keeping people versus those with a constant churn of people.”

Follow Michelle McNickle on Twitter, @Michelle_writes

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