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CNA course filling Montana's healthcare worker gap on Tribal land

Posted at 9:00 AM, Jan 02, 2023

HARDIN – There’s a great need for healthcare workers in Montana— specifically, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs).

This is where a group of roughly 18 students gathered Friday after two weeks of training to finally take the test and get certified, embarking on a new career in a rewarding industry.

One of those students is 29-year-old Northern Cheyenne resident Renessa Shoulderblade, "I think a lot of CNAs work in assisted living and that is really rewarding because it's end-of-life care.

She plans to start as a CNA and then one day transition to being a nurse. Shoulderblade didn’t have to travel far though to train in Hardin, because of help offered by Job Service Miles City.

“I am thankful for that, I didn’t have to travel far away for that, it was all pretty compact,” she said.

Entering the healthcare field is often overwhelming, with high upfront costs to get started, and in Montana, there’s also the reality of having to travel to get to class. But many agencies are lending a hand to make it happen.

“Saying I want to become a CNA, but I can't afford the class, so I'm just going to have to take a job elsewhere,” said Jessica Wilhelm with Job Service Miles City. “And that's where we come into play, where we can help them pay for that class and to get into the type of position that they want.

The program is a partnership between the Montana Department of Labor, Job Service Miles City, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Education, TERO, Big Horn Healthcare and Lame Deer and Hardin Sshools. And with the help of American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the courses are funded federally.

Checking vitals, changing bedsheets, and even trying to learn how to gently shave patients are just some of the things students were working on in class Friday.

“CNAs are the ones that really do the work. They work hard,” said instructor Julie Russell, a registered nurse with Montana Health Network.

She says these CNA students come to class optimistic about the future of healthcare and their careers.

“Whether they end up being a nurse, going into radiology, go into administration, having that baseline and understanding then through the ranks….if you will and healthcare is huge,” said Russell.

But the need for CNAs is great in Montana, with the Department of Labor reporting as many as 850 open positions every year.

“Every entity is going to be hiring no matter what, but in healthcare, everybody's really short right now,” said Russell.

So, the program is a way to get those positions filled and get Montana up to speed with the health workforce. And those like Clara White Crane, who is taking the opportunity to get certified for her tribe's elders, “I do it for my family."

Thinking about it makes her emotional. She says in her culture, elders don’t want to leave their homes as they age and need care.

“Our family comes first, and we take care of our family so with this training and being certified, I can take care of my relatives,” she said.