Rachel Turner acts as a patient for fellow student Bryant...

Rachel Turner acts as a patient for fellow student Bryant Lituma during a phlebotomy class at Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Brentwood. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Short-term training programs are giving thousands of Long Islanders the steppingstone they need to snag jobs in fast-growing health care fields.

Training takes under a year, and demand for the jobs they're learning — including certified nursing assistant, medical assistant, phlebotomist and home health aide — has never been higher. Many students are snapped up for jobs before they graduate.

Driving that demand: the pandemic, Long Island's aging population, a changing health care environment, and a wave of turnover in the industry statewide fueled in part by mandates that led tens of thousands of New York's health care workers to quit rather than receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

"There is a greater need for these type of services than we have workers, and COVID made it worse," said Nicole Laborde, founder and chief executive of Ideal School of Allied Health Care in Hauppauge, which has 800 students in programs to be certified in a variety of support health care roles. Enrollment is up from 600 last year and 450 in 2019, before the pandemic.

"With the vaccination mandate, a lot of these people left the field, so it makes it even more difficult to find home health aides," Laborde said. "I do my best to place students so the minute they are done with their program, they are out working."

Pay varies for the roles, often called allied health positions, from a median of $47,960 for phlebotomists down to $31,590 for home health aides, according to current estimates from the Department of Labor.

For some, health care training can be a way out of fast food, retail or other jobs without many advancement opportunities, and into a growing career field. Most of the jobs offer health insurance and other benefits.

Joana Cuesta, 23

“I wanted my parents to be proud of me, so I said, 'OK, I’m going to look for something, for a course that’s not too long.'”

New job: Home health aide, now working as a tuition coordinator at Ideal School of Allied Health in Hauppauge

Previous job: House cleaner

Length of training: 4 weeks

Cost of training: $640

"I wanted my parents to be proud of me, so I said, OK, I’m going to look for something, for a course that’s not too long," said Joana Cuesta, 23, of Selden, who trained as a certified home health aide at Ideal.

Cuesta, like many who work in health care support positions, is an immigrant whose family came to the United States for better opportunities. Originally from Ecuador, Cuesta immigrated to Long Island in 2015 and two years later graduated from Comsewogue High School.

Nationwide, about 17% of health care workers were foreign-born as of 2018, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. That same year 22% of nursing assistants and 38% of home health aides were originally from outside the country.

Cuesta was working with her mom cleaning houses when she enrolled at Ideal.

Four weeks of night courses later, she was certified and helping the elderly at home. For now Cuesta, who hopes to become a registered nurse, has put a pause on her home health aide work while she works nights at a restaurant and during the day as a tuition coordinator at Ideal while she saves up to pay for future schooling.

"Sometimes [home health aide work] is hard. Sometimes you have a case where the person has dementia or they have Alzheimer’s," she said. "This job is for a person that really likes to do it. If you don’t like what you do, you’re not going to do a good job."

While health care has long been a growth area in the region's economy, the COVID-19 crisis has ratcheted up demand, said Michele Cohen, principal of Adult Education at Nassau BOCES, which provides training for positions like medical assistant and phlebotomist.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices "are desperately in need of health care employees," Cohen said. "We can’t give them enough people."

Just as the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, Cohen said, the adult education program was in the process of finalizing a training partnership with one of the largest health care systems on Long Island. Due to COVID lockdowns, many in-person courses were suspended until that fall.

By the time they returned, Cohen said, three other major hospital systems had reached out, all hoping to create a pipeline to fill openings.

"It leads to career pathways," Cohen said. "The return on investment is huge."

Demand for health care support positions is projected to ramp up dramatically over the next few years, with those occupations projected to grow by 36.8% between 2018 and 2028 on Long Island, according to state Labor Department projections.

By comparison, overall growth across all job categories on the Island is expected to be 9.3% during the same window.

"Health care support occupations are projected to grow the fastest among any other occupational grouping on Long Island," said Shital Patel, labor market analyst for the Labor Department’s Hicksville office.

And within that fast-growing category, the biggest increase is projected to be a 70.3% spike in positions for home health aides, Patel said.

"Overall, health care is changing and they’re moving more toward the use of home care for the elderly as an alternative to expensive nursing homes and hospital stays," Patel said.

Another factor leading to the rapid need for health care workers is pent-up demand for health services that have been delayed by the pandemic.

"As the pandemic was getting under control … you needed more health care workers because now we were flooding doctors’ offices again," said Kathleen Lapkowski, who oversees the allied health continuing education program at Molloy College. "Now, we’re back to emergency rooms, we’re back to elective surgeries. ... That’s why the need right now is great."

With big health care systems buying up independent physicians' offices, more training is sometimes needed to raise staff competency to the same level as the rest of a health system, Lapkowski said. In addition, more staff is needed as more procedures and medical testing are done in the less expensive outpatient setting as opposed to hospitals.

"The majority of things are happening in outpatient, ambulatory settings," she said.

On top of those factors, COVID itself has led to a greater need for phlebotomists who can draw blood to perform antibody tests on patients.

"I get phone calls frequently from offices saying 'Do you have any medical assistants that are ready to graduate the program?' " Lapkowski said.

She said that while positions like medical assistant may not be highly compensated, probably half of Molloy's continuing education graduates use it as a jumping off point to other health care careers.

"It is absolutely a steppingstone and a foundation," she said. "While the nurse and the doctor may be doing more high-end procedures, that patient has 100% been prepared by the medical assistant."

Brahashitha Gupta, 46

“It satisfies my soul, serving the seniors.”

New job: Director of Indian and Asian Division at the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility

Previous job: Adult day care operator

Length of training: 5 months

Cost of training: Free

Brahashitha Gupta, 46, of Roslyn, director of the Indian and Asian Division at the A. Holly Patterson Extended Care Facility in Uniondale, said training in a health care support role unexpectedly gave her a second career.

Gupta had worked with her husband operating an after-school program for children and an adult day care program. But when the pandemic began, the 18-year-old family business went on hiatus for months, effectively shuttering their elder care business.

Then, late last year, Gupta heard about Nassau County Community College’s community health worker program, a 5-month course that trains students to work as front line health care workers who connect residents with resources.

"It was very intense," said Gupta, who had to complete a 75-hour internship at the end of her first three months. The program, which is supported by grants, is free to accepted students.

She said she took the class in the hopes of using what she learned to better her dormant adult day care business. But while interning at A. Holly Patterson, management offered her a staff position as director of the nursing home’s services for Indian and Asian residents.

Now, while her husband runs the child care business, she is feeling fulfilled in her new career.

"These residents, they need medical assistance 24/7," she said. "It’s been a very rewarding experience. It satisfies my soul, serving the seniors."

Where to find training

Another recent trainee said she's been chasing a career in medicine for years.

"I wanted to do something that would give me one foot in the medical field," said Mariel Isaray, a patient care associate who works at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.

Isaray, 28, who started working for Northwell late last year, said her training and certification as a nursing assistant at Ideal made her current employment possible.

And while the program itself took only six weeks, for the Plainview resident, landing a gig in health care has been a long time in the making.

Before leaving her home country of Venezuela in 2017, Isaray was enrolled in a six-year medical school program with plans of becoming a physician. But at the start of her fifth year, a family health emergency combined with her country’s destabilized economy meant Isaray had to choose between her career or potential safety.

"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life to stop everything," she said.

Isaray planned to continue her education after moving to Spain with her mother and sister, but soon after met her now-husband, a Long Islander vacationing in Spain. In late 2019, she immigrated to the United States and soon enrolled at Ideal.

Now, Isaray says she plans to pursue her bachelor's degree in nursing and has applied to several schools for next fall.

"As soon as you get into the hospital setting, you get the hunger for more," she said. "You get this feeling that you’re helping someone … like you have a purpose in your life."

Laborde, the Ideal chief executive, who also owns Ideal Home Care Services, a home health aide provider, said the work done by the students she teaches and hires is essential.

"At some point in our lives we will need the help of either a home health aide or the help of a health care provider such as a nursing assistant," said Laborde, a Haitian immigrant who started her career as a nursing assistant.

Laborde said that while insurance reimbursement and Medicaid rates limit how much home health aides are paid, certification and training can make the difference for those who want a career with growth potential.

"This is their path to a better financial situation," she said.

Lorena Lorca, 36

“There are just so many options once you’re in the medical field.”

New job: Nursing assistant at Cohen Children’s Medical Center

Previous job: ESL instructor for Nassau BOCES

Length of training: 8 months

Cost of training: $4,000

Rosedale resident Lorena Lorca, 36, was already a decade into a career teaching English to foreign students when she decided to begin training as a medical assistant at Nassau BOCES.

"It was a totally new adventure for me," said Lorca, who completed the eight-month program in late 2019. "When I originally started, I felt like it was a huge leap career-wise."

Before she completed her certification, Lorca was offered a job at NYU Langone Hospital Long Island — formerly Winthrop Hospital — in Mineola and spent much of her first year on the job working during the pandemic. She even picked up a second job as a nursing assistant at Cohen Children's Medical Center.

She's since left NYU Langone, but is working at Cohen while she studies to become a diagnostic medical sonographer — a health care worker who takes and evaluates ultrasounds.

"There are just so many options once you’re in the medical field," said Lorca.

"You can really go any which way you want," she said. "Nobody cares how old you are or where you’re from. As long as you’re willing to put in the work, you're welcomed with open arms."

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