SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — For months, COVID-19 has highlighted a need for health care workers in our state. For the nursing field, the growing shortage of employees in Maine isn't a new problem -- but the era of a pandemic has perhaps created a new sense of urgency in addressing it.
Earlier in October, Southern Maine Community College officially received a $500,000 donation from the Boyne Family. This money is designed to expand the school's nursing program by funding a new nursing instructor position with the goal of welcoming more students to campus.
"Each year, we have no short of 1,500 applicants into our nursing program -- and we're only able to accept 60 to 70 students each fall," said Michael Nozdrovicky, the chair of the nursing program at SMCC.
Nozdrovicky says he believes the shortage of nurses in our state isn't necessarily because of a lack of interest in the field -- but rather an aging population, as patients get older and sicker and a generation of nurses (and instructors) retires.
"It's hard to turn away students when you know that there's such a tremendous shortage out there," Nozdrovicky expressed.
He's hopeful having another instructor will allow the program to accept at least a couple dozen more students, with the ultimate goal of sending out new nurses who work in local communities.
"We send our students down to Kittery and all the way up to Lewiston for their clinical. We try to keep students as close to their home base as possible," Nozdrovicky explained, noting there are more than 200 students in the program currently. "Many of our students actually graduate nursing school and stay and live right in the communities that they were hoping to live. They're not going back to another state. They're staying here."
30-year-old Luke White is in his second semester of the nursing program -- but this wasn't always the career end-goal he had in mind.
"I went to cosmetology school. I was a hairdresser for about four years," White recalled. "It was definitely a fulfilling career, and I made a lot of money."
White wanted something more, though, that he admired in his mother and sister who are both nurses.
"I see the dedication they put in every day to giving back to the community and being of service. That was very calling for me," White acknowledged.
White started classes about a year into the pandemic and will graduate next December. He says he's interested in infectious diseases and would potentially like to work in community health. The reward makes the challenge of entering the workforce during a pandemic worth it.
"It's a little bit intimidating, but it's also rewarding knowing that what we're doing is actually going to make a difference," White said.
Jennifer Laflamme is an instructor who also joined SMCC during the pandemic. She was a nurse at Maine Medical Center for 23 years but says she wanted a new challenge. Next spring, her first group of students will graduate -- and Laflamme is confident that moment will be emotional.
"They want to get out there, and I think they have a lot to offer," Laflamme said of her students' time spent learning during the pandemic. "They have new eyes, and that's how we come up with best practices -- it's new eyes seeing what we can do better."
Clark Canfield, director of communications for SMCC, said the Maine Community College System is in regular contact with two of our state's largest health care providers: MaineHealth and Northern Light Health. As of the end of last week, they had a combined 1,255 registered nurse openings.