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UW-Eau Claire leading national initiative to increase number of leaders in senior care industry

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire is leading a national initiative that aims to increase the number of people pursuing careers in the growing senior care industry.

With millions of baby boomers now crossing the “senior” threshold, the long-term care and senior living industry in the U.S. is exploding as it tries to meet the growing needs and expectations of a population that is projected to total more than 80 million people by 2050.

Dr. Doug Olson is a national leader in the field of senior care education.

Dr. Doug Olson is a national leader in the field of senior care education.

However, the number of senior care administrators is not keeping pace with the industry’s needs, says Dr. Doug Olson, who is involved in the leadership of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s health care administration program.

So, Olson — already a nationally respected leader in senior care administration education — launched and now is leading a national initiative that aims to strengthen and grow college programs across the country, with a goal of bringing more professionals into the field of long-term care and senior living.

“This is one of those things that has been on the forefront of my mind for a while,” Olson says. “A couple of years ago, I had a sabbatical supported by the university, and I spent that time planning how we can expand senior care administrative programs across the country. There just are not enough of them.”

Olson’s planning with university and provider partners led to the creation of “Vision 2025,” an initiative that has strong support from education and industry leaders across the U.S.

The national effort aims to grow the number of students studying senior care administration, ensuring that the senior living sector has the leaders it needs to meet increasing and changing needs, Olson says.

“Vision 2025” goals include developing at least 25 robust university and college programs to train future industry leaders, creating 1,000 paid internships, and developing strong university, provider and association partnerships, all by the year 2025.

UW-Eau Claire is leading the way

Currently, there are only a handful of strong university programs dedicated to long-term care, assisted living and senior living administration in the country. And they produce nowhere near enough graduates to meet future needs, Olson says.

UW-Eau Claire has one of the largest and best-known programs of its kind in the U.S., enrolling about 215 students and graduating about 60 students each year, Olson says. Most programs graduate approximately 10 students a year, he says.

Graduates of UW-Eau Claire’s program are in demand, with nearly 100% of them getting jobs immediately after graduation, Dr. Brewer Doran, dean of UW-Eau Claire’s College of Business, says, noting that the university’s program also was the first of its kind to receive health services executive accreditation from the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards.

Given the program’s history, it is logical that UW-Eau Claire be a leader in helping to improve curriculum and grow the number of students pursuing careers in long-term and senior care, Doran says.

“It’s natural for us to take on the leadership of ‘Vision 2025’ because we have been a leader in the eyes of providers and organizations since the very beginning of our program,” Doran says.

UW-Eau Claire’s Center for Health Administration and Aging Services Excellence (CHAASE) program has been so successful because of its partnerships with providers and professional associations, Olson says. Industry leaders, including some Blugolds, sit on the CHAASE advisory board, and their input helps to shape the program, he says, adding that they also are helping with “Vision 2025.”

Mike Schanke, a 1985 UW-Eau Claire graduate who is on the CHAASE board and the “Vision 2025” steering committee, says he appreciates that while CHAASE supports UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff, it also aims to be engaged at the national level.

“UW-Eau Claire and CHAASE are ready to collaborate and to lead so we can ensure that universities produce enough senior care leaders to meet the needs of all parts of the senior care continuum,” says Schanke, who is the president of Oakridge Gardens in Menasha.

Given the quality graduates it produces, UW-Eau Claire’s program can serve as a model, Schanke says.

“If people want to look to us as an example of what can work, we stand ready to help them,” Schanke says. “UW-Eau Claire produces exceptional graduates who are leaders in the field.”

CHAASE is a bridge between academics and providers, Olson says. That partnership, he says, is why the program is so successful.

Olson says another strength of UW-Eau Claire’s program is that it requires students to complete a yearlong paid internship, meaning they already have real-world experience by the time they graduate.

Currently, there are only about 500 paid senior care internships in the U.S. “Vision 2025” calls for doubling that number nationwide.

The “Vision 2025” initiative

At the heart of “Vision 2025” is an understanding that higher education and industry leaders must work together to develop leaders for the senior care sector, Olson says.

With that in mind, in summer 2019, Olson brought together more than 130 academic and industry leaders to participate in a first-of-its-kind symposium, sponsored by Ziegler, to discuss how to build more senior care administration programs at colleges and universities around the U.S.

The University and Senior Housing and Care Symposium included college educators, senior living professionals, senior organization and association leaders, and other stakeholders from around the U.S.

By all measures, the symposium was a success, with participants identifying goals and next steps to ensure the industry can meet the needs of the nation’s aging population, Olson says.

“The overwhelming sentiment that everyone walked away from the symposium with is that this is a problem that can’t be solved alone,” Olson says. “We embraced the ‘it will take a village’ concept to make sure we get this done.”

Participants identified three “Vision 2025” pillars: Strengthen academic programs, establish strong partnerships and provide quality field experiences.

Olson now serves as the executive lead on the “Vision 2025” project but works closely with two co-chairs, both of whom have years of leadership experience and strong connections within the industry, and with Taylor Darby, a loaned executive from LCS. Seven key associations in the senior care and services field also have endorsed “Vision 2025.”

“Having representatives from those organizations out in front sends a powerful message,” Olson says.

Since the first symposium, groups have continued to work on numerous projects, including things such as creating a document to help students understand career opportunities within the field, ensuring higher education leaders support the effort, establishing a public directory of programs and developing models for paid internships.

“We are excited about the progress the workgroups are making and the spirit of optimism that surrounds the effort,” Olson says. “We’re all committed to ensuring programs are in place to find and prepare talented people to lead senior care organizations in the future.”

Changing demographics, needs

With Americans aging and staying active longer, the senior health care industry faces unprecedented labor shortages and increasing demand for services, Olson says.

However, given the growing and changing senior populations, the industry is continuously evolving to meet new needs and expectations, creating many diverse career paths within the field, Olson says, noting that long-term care and senior living now includes everything from home- and community-based services to assisted living to senior communities.

Industry leaders also are aging, with the average age of administrators now over 50, Olson says.

“We have an employment cliff coming as people retire,” Olson says. “So, we have more people leaving the profession than entering it at the same time demand for professionals in the field is increasing.”

Attracting future leaders

Among the current challenges the industry faces is getting young adults to see that a career in long-term care and senior living is interesting, challenging and rewarding, Olson says.

“The field has image issues, so we have to find ways to change the perception,” Olson says. “It just isn’t something that jumps out an 18-year-old when they’re thinking about what to do for a career. We need to help them understand that graduates get jobs, they have a good salary, and there are many potential career paths because the senior care and living sector continues to change all the time.”

While only a limited number of students come to college with plans to major in health care administration, many who have interests in the care and business fields find their way to HCAD and CHAASE, Olson says.

“Students often become interested when they learn it’s a career that allows them to use their heart, head and hands,” Olson says. “Their heart because they’ll make a difference for many people, their head because they must run a good business and their hands because they will work with many people.”

Another draw, Olson says, is that jobs in the senior living sector align with many Blugolds’ values.

“This younger generation is very focused on wanting to make a difference in the world; they want to make things better,” says Olson. “They also are multitaskers who like to be challenged. That fits well because no leader in senior care has the same kind of day two days in a row.”

Doran agrees, adding that students who learn about the major quickly find that it is an excellent fit, and they appreciate the long-term career opportunities.

“Our students and graduates are so successful because they love what they do,” Doran says.

Students' passion for the field has been obvious during the pandemic, Doran says. Many students were in the final months of their yearlong internships when COVID hit the U.S. hard last spring. Despite the unprecedented situation, they continued to contribute to and thrive in their internships, she says.

“They all toughed it out and made it through,” Doran says. “Providers were worried the students might go home, but none of them did. This year’s group of interns knew what they were getting into and they are doing really good work.”

Next steps for “Vision 2025”

While a second symposium that had been slated for 2020 was pushed to 2021 because of COVID-19, Olson says he is confident that the initiative still is on track to meet its goals by 2025.

Leaders in the industry continue to be supportive of the initiative and optimistic that it will lead to meaningful change, he says.

While “Vision 2025” is a national initiative, it will benefit UW-Eau Claire students, Olson says.

“We’re in a unique position because we already have a strong program and are a leader in our field,” Olson says. “If we advance something nationally that strengthens other programs, it benefits the profession and that brings everyone up, including UW-Eau Claire students.”