Among the economic development initiatives happening in Douglas County, the one that presents the greatest potential for new jobs and longterm growth and stability is building an allied and mental health college. Importantly, creating a pipeline of skilled healthcare providers will better ensure local access to quality care in our community and across Southern Oregon.

Over the past year, the Umpqua Economic Development Partnership, along with our many partners, has made good progress in getting state agencies involved and mapping out the building blocks of the college.

Healthcare demand continues to grow, especially as our population ages, and along with it the need for skilled providers. The Oregon Employment Department just released its latest workforce projections through 2027, which confirm steady job growth in multiple allied- and mental-health fields. Notably, healthcare and social assistance will add 49,500 jobs statewide — the most of any sector. That’s over 3,500 more healthcare jobs than OED last projected through 2027. The problem, particularly for rural communities like ours, is that many of these healthcare jobs are difficult to fill.

Our largest healthcare providers, CHI Mercy Health and Roseburg VA, have struggled with high job-vacancy rates despite costly recruiting efforts. The Roseburg VA, for example, already has a 16 percent job-vacancy rate for registered nurses, 20 percent rate for clinical social workers and 29 percent rate for radiologic technologists. And although the VA works to keep pace with growing demand, it also faces the challenge that a large percentage of its staff are older and will likely retire in coming years. CHI Mercy, as well as other providers in our region, are also wrestling with similar high job-vacancy rates and attrition issues.

A state-supported workgroup formed last year and facilitated by the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs has taken up the task of doing an in-depth analysis on healthcare-workforce needs and informing the development of the college. There is a strong local presence on the workgroup that includes UEDP, CHI Mercy, Roseburg VA, Umpqua Community College, Area Health Education Center of Southwest Oregon, Cow Creek Tribe and the City of Roseburg. Local elected officials Senator Dallas Heard, Representative Gary Leif and Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman also serve on the workgroup, as do experts with the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon State Board of Nursing and the VA’s Northwest Network, VISN 20.

Importantly, the creation of this workgroup has drawn together an exceptional level of knowledge and expertise to advance the college initiative forward. It is exciting to develop a new avenue for residents and veterans with active-service medical training to obtain degrees and secure healthcare jobs that offer living wages. And, by growing our own healthcare workforce, we can better ensure access to local quality care for families, seniors and veterans.

One key decision made about the college is that programs will be phased in over time, starting with those allied and mental health occupations with the highest demand. Included among the programs selected for phase one are nursing, physical therapy, radiology, medical/clinical lab technology, licensed clinical psychology and social work. It is important to underscore that the college will only offer advanced bachelor’s, master’s and PhD level degrees and will tie in directly with existing two-year community colleges, including UCC, which has exemplary associate level allied health programs.

Oregonians for Rural Health is in the process of developing a business plan for the college that outlines projected student enrollment, in addition to land, capitol and operating costs. Initial estimates project the college footprint for phase one to be around 152,500 square feet. By year five, the college is expected to instruct nearly 1,000 students. The leading build site for the college is in the downtown Roseburg area, which offers ready infrastructure and ample space to grow, although other potential building sites are available.

We have a unique opportunity here in Roseburg — thanks in part because of our central location, but certainly the exemplary group of partners who have come together — to revitalize our economy, create living wage jobs and better ensure access to quality local healthcare.

Wayne Patterson is the executive director of the Umpqua Economic Development Partnership.

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