OCEAN SPRINGS — Amber Granger, 38, took her first health care job more than two decades ago as a nursing assistant.
She went back to school to be a lab technician, then moved into management. She dreamed of becoming a nurse but she couldn’t give up her income – or take on anymore student debt – for nursing school.
Her career aspirations sat on hold until the Singing River Healthcare Academy gave her the nudge she needed. The new academy is the state’s first-ever medical apprenticeship program.
The academy is part of the Singing River Health System’s – and state and local leadership’s – answer to the major staffing shortages plaguing the state’s health care system.
“If I can advance my career, continue to work, and provide for my family then why not apply?” said Granger, a Gulfport resident. “I got the call that I was accepted and it was surreal until my first day of school.”
Now Granger is on her way to become a licensed practical nurse. She’s in a cohort of 15 in the fledgling academy, which won’t have a dedicated homebase until a new complex is constructed. The program allows students to train for a host of much-needed health care jobs without charge and while getting paid for on-the-job training.
On Thursday, Gov. Tate Reeves gathered with hospital leaders to break ground on the academy’s planned four-story building. The new training center will be a short drive from Singing River’s Ocean Springs hospital campus on Bienville Boulevard.
“This transformative program is going to have a huge impact on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Reeves said during Thursday’s celebration. “And, quite frankly, it’s going to have a huge impact on the entire state of Mississippi.”
Singing River CEO Tiffany Murdock said the program projects to have 1,000 students in the fall of 2024. She plans to more than quadruple that annual count once the academy’s building is open to students.
Reeves said the academy fits the state’s overall approach to strengthening the economy through workforce development by ensuring Mississippians have access to training for the state’s most in-demand and high-paying positions.
“This academy will strengthen the pipeline of health care professionals in Mississippi,” he said, “and will help entice people to live, learn and work right here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Lauren Fernandez, a 33-year-old Ocean Springs resident, is one of the program’s recent graduates. The former Army medic is now a surgical technologist. She aids surgeons from a procedure’s start to finish.
“I had gotten out of health care for a while,” Fernandez said, “and I debated going back for surgical tech school. But then I saw the apprenticeship program and I was like, ‘This is meant to be.’”
In addition to practical nurses and surgical technologists, the program also trains nursing assistants, medical assistants, and phlebotomists.
Hospitals have been facing staffing shortages since before the pandemic, but the issues peaked as the worst of COVID-19 dragged on. Nurses left the field altogether, took on less-stressful nursing jobs outside a hospital setting, or became contracted travel nurses for higher pay.
Mississippi hospitals reported about 3,000 total nursing vacancies at the end of 2021, according to a survey by the Mississippi Hospital Association.
“I can’t be 2,500 people,” Granger said, referring to the state’s massive nursing shortages, “but I can fill the gap of one.”