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Career Pathways and College Credit for CNAs: Spotlight on Northwood Technical College

By Jessica King (she/her) | May 1, 2024

“Real opportunity” for career progression is one of PHI’s 5 Pillars of Direct Care Job Quality. Many direct care workers seek such opportunities within the direct care field—for example, through advanced roles like the Care Integration Senior Aide role. Others may want to translate their direct care experience into related professional roles but may not see viable pathways to get there.

Northwood Technical College in Wisconsin has taken a step toward bridging this gap by introducing a new career pathway for certified nursing assistants (CNAs). Under the leadership of Jennifer Ellis, MS, HS-BCP, CPG, Gerontology – Aging Services Professional Program Director, and Kimberly McDonald, MSW, LCSW, CPG, Gerontology – Aging Services Professional Program Instructor, Northwood Tech now accepts nursing assistant training hours as credits toward a gerontology degree, which can open doors to administrative, leadership, and other roles in the aging and long-term care fields for CNAs all around the country.

PHI’s Jessica King spoke with Jenn and Kimberly to find out more about this unique program.

Jessica King: Tell us about this new career pathway for CNAs. How does it work? What makes it unique?

Jennifer Ellis: Thanks to a change in 2021, technical diploma credits and associate degree credits are now equivalent across Wisconsin’s technical colleges. This means that we can apply nursing assistant training credits toward the gerontology associate degree. This is available to people who have done CNA training in other states, which has opened our program to students nationally.

Our flexible program is tailored to adult learners. We use a flipped classroom model with online coursework. We offer live evening sessions that are recorded—so people can come in person, join virtually, or watch the live session recordings. We have hands-on learning opportunities. We aren’t a traditional lecture-style program.

Kimberly McDonald: We have students who come in and want to be in the helping professions, but they may have difficulty with nursing classes and placement testing. We all have different personal and professional experiences, and, in our program, we all learn from each other.

JE: We give students a safe space where the “correct answer” may vary; we want students to state their answer and we want them to back it up with their experience and other research. This involves a lot more critical thinking and application of students’ skills in real world scenarios. We teach them to be different learners, and they excel.

KM: A lot of our students have been hushed or talked down to as CNAs. But we want to hear their voices and experiences. You see their growth and confidence blossom.

JK: What motivated you to develop this program?

KM: We like to be at the forefront of the field. COVID really emphasized and exacerbated burnout, but the CNAs we encounter through our program still have a passion for working with older adults. We have high school students coming in who have briefly worked as CNAs and students who have been working as CNAs for 20-plus years and they want to ladder to a different career that hasn’t been set up for a CNA.

JK: What are some career options for CNAs who obtain a gerontology associate degree through your program?

KM: There truly isn’t a business sector that gerontology doesn’t touch. I remember having a high school student say, “I want to do construction” and he was so tuned out during my presentation to his class. I said, “would you build a home for a 25-year-old the same way you would build a home for a 75-year-old?” I could see the student’s mental wheels beginning to turn, and he was able to make the connection. Many fields have said, “we don’t deal with aging,” only to suddenly realize how ubiquitous it is.

JE: To help guide students unfamiliar with employment opportunities, we like to think of the three main “buckets” for career options in gerontology: long-term care, home- and community-based services (HCBS), and traditional aging networks. However, we know more options exist.

KM: Public health is another area that students can enter with the gerontology degree. Domestic violence has also been on the rise with older adults. We’ve had multiple students rewrite materials and curriculum for domestic violence programs to include the aging population. We also have several students working within homeless shelters given the high homeless rates of older individuals.

Entrepreneurship has been huge. Some of our graduates have started their own businesses that provide case management with different providers and collateral contacts in the area.

Services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has been another area. We need people to be well-versed in aging in that population as well.

JK: Switching gears a little bit, can you tell us a little bit about marketing? How have you spread the word about the program? How successful has outreach been?

JE: We have spent thousands of hours connecting with people individually. We have built a foundation of people who are bought into what we’re doing as a program and how we’re bringing that human services/interdisciplinary perspective. We use social media and speak at conferences.

KM: I developed one of our advisory committees using contacts from my previous employment. We have also recently been accredited through the Accreditation for Gerontology Education Council as the second associate degree in gerontology in the country. That comes with a lot of weight and was a very proud achievement for us.

JE: I recently served on the Health Occupation Students of America board in Wisconsin. I am connected with departments of public instruction, which allows us to develop partnerships with high school career counselors and other influencers in that space.

We are also trying to find those people that are leaving the profession because they didn’t feel respected.  We upskill them.

JK: Were there barriers in your process to building this program? How did you overcome them?

JE: We faced issues with ageism since day one. We had to write the curriculum to launch this program and educate our own institution on gerontology. We also had to find what we call our “gerontology friends” who, philosophically, come from the same core knowledge base. There are so many naysayers out there who don’t understand where a gerontology associate degree fits in.

KM: When you look back to the 90s and 2000s, the two-year degree was trades and that’s it. There wasn’t the opportunity to do all these other interdisciplinary programs at a community college level.

But when COVID hit and people were leaving jobs, suddenly there was this high demand for employees. County positions were sitting open for six months. I talked to contacts at the county level and said, “Would you hire somebody at an ADRC or AAA that has a four-year degree in communication? Or perhaps you could obtain a waiver to hire someone who has a two-year degree in gerontology instead?” It’s really encouraging people to think outside the box with hiring requirements.

JE: In terms of overcoming barriers, there are two pieces. One is we’re both scholar practitioners. We’ve worked for several decades in various settings. We know the regulations; we know what’s going on. Using our experience and knowledge has really helped us. Secondly, we’ve worked really hard to use the right language in all of our communications. We use healthy aging-focused imagery. We work very hard at having a non-ageist perspective in everything that we do.

JK: What advice would you offer other technical and community colleges who want to build a similar program?

JE: If they are outside of Wisconsin, they have to evaluate credit equity between the various types of credentials offered at community and technical colleges. If their state says that a technical diploma does not have the same value as an associate degree, they may need to do some advocacy at the state level to get technical program credits to count as much as associate degree credits.

JK: So where do you want to go from here? What are your future aspirations?

KM: The key is building alternative career pathways other than traditional healthcare programs for students who are passionate about working with an aging population.

JE: We’re so passionate about what we do. We live in the communities in which we work, we know what’s happening, we see the demographic shifts. We don’t want to stand for gerontology programs closing; we want to educate others about the important role gerontology education has in our country. We work very hard to try to take away some of that stigma and fear surrounding aging. We can be a part of the solution. We don’t want to lose direct care workers to other fields. We are here to provide options.

Contributing Authors
Jennifer Ellis and Kimberly McDonald

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