If there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, it’s the importance of the health care industry. Health care workers not only save lives, they’re a critical driver of the Minnesota economy. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the Rochester area, where health care makes up a larger percentage of total employment than it does in any other region of the state.

Gov. Walz proclaimed January Health Care Month to highlight the critical importance of Minnesota’s health care industry to our economy. The health care sector employs 478,485 people, by far the largest workforce by sector in Minnesota, accounting for $25.7 billion in wages in 2019.

In talking with health care providers during the past several months, I’ve heard about the effect the pandemic has had on this vital industry. Not only have costs gone up due to the pandemic, revenues have gone down in many cases because elective procedures have been postponed. Staffing shortages have been exacerbated.

During a recent health care roundtable, Guy Finne, director of Workforce Development at Mayo Clinic, said, “We have hundreds of job postings at entry level, certified nursing assistant (CNA), personal care aide, licensed practical nurse, many short-term training kinds of opportunities – but they’re very hard to fill.”

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is working with health care employers across Minnesota to help raise awareness about the critical need for health care workers. We’re helping them highlight the benefits of flexible schedules, employer-paid education and advancement opportunities, as well as identify actual required qualifications for in-demand positions to eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment.

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Perhaps no part of the industry is in greater need than long-term care. Kristen Sailer, coordinator of the Southeast Minnesota Disaster Health Coalition, which helps plan for emergency staffing needs, says people working in long-term care do so because they want to be of public service – they want to make a difference.

Chris Rustad of Charter House, Mayo Clinic’s senior housing and care center in Rochester, told DEED this about his staff: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve been faced with adjusting to evolving safety measures, contingency planning that enables them to take on new roles to cover for others due to absences, daily COVID-19 self-monitoring and regular COVID-19 testing, and more – all in the interest of protecting and serving our senior community.”

And DEED heard this inspiring story of heroism from Sara Blair, administrator at Sauer Health Care in Winona: “Full time and tenured staff lean into the staffing shortages, but our college student CNAs stepped up in a huge way. They filled a lion’s share of our open hours including the overnight and weekend shifts. Additionally, we had two Winona State University students step forward to serve as interim emergency CNAs specifically because they felt called to action by the pandemic.”

We’re celebrating health care heroes like those students during the entire month of January. We’re also working hard to connect Minnesota health care employers with the workers they need to serve Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents.

Four of the top 10 Jobs in Demand now in Minnesota based on current job postings are health care jobs. Visit CareerForceMN.com for the most up-to-date information on jobs in demand, virtual events and Health Care Month resources.

This month, the Walz-Flanagan administration, DEED and others are honoring health care workers. They’ve responded with courage and compassion to serve their fellow Minnesotans during the pandemic. Join us in thanking health care heroes – and help share the word about the need for more heroes in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Steve Grove is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.