California Workforce: A Golden Opportunity

by Cynndie Hoff

California embodies a microcosm of the nation’s job market with employment options in virtually every field. However, while the Public Policy Institute of California projects a steadily increasing demand for workers with a college education through 2030, it also estimates that the state will “fall about 1.1 million college graduates short of economic demand”—a situation known as the workforce skills gap. Azusa Pacific seeks to bridge that gap by producing competitive, skilled graduates prepared to thrive in many of the state’s fastest-growing occupations.

A prime Southern California location, adjacent to many of the nation’s biggest industries and largest employers, means APU supplies the state with some of its most qualified professionals. “As Azusa Pacific cultivates connections with these industry leaders, more and more of our students reap the benefits of a real-time, industry-based education,” said Phil Brazell ’08, M.A. ’13, executive director of career and alumni relations. “APU introduces strategic programs that meet marketplace needs. We invite industry leaders like Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena to review curricula so that they equip students for immediate application. Moving toward partnerships between the academy and the marketplace means that our graduates who participate through internships leave campus ready to perform the roles employers need today.”

The strategy not only helps APU alumni get hired, but also results in financial reward. Based on national wage reports, APU alumni with bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees earn more than others who hold the same degrees, and in key California industries, APU alumni earn significantly more than their peers: $30,000 more annually in health care; $28,000 more in education. Good news for Azusa Pacific graduates ready to enter virtually any field, including those projected as some of California’s highest-growth markets—physical therapy, education, and nursing.

Several factors contribute to the flourishing physical therapy field, including population growth (especially the elderly), heightened interest in health and fitness, and popularity of sports and physical activities that result in injuries. The California Employment Development Department expects the physical therapy field to grow much faster than all other occupations, and PT jobs “to increase by 26.9 percent, or 5,200 jobs, between 2014 and 2024.” That report further reveals an “average of 530 new job openings per year anticipated for physical therapists, plus an additional 520 job openings due to net replacement needs, resulting in a total of 1,050 job openings.” With 2016 annual salaries between $81,565 and $113,288, the field draws more students to the state’s 14 universities that offer Doctor of Physical Therapy programs.

That means APU graduates compete in a large pool for those jobs, but they do so with a distinct advantage. The rigorous curriculum paired with Azusa Pacific’s Christian worldview sets graduates apart from their peers. “They enter the field equipped with the capacity and the desire to care for the whole patient,” said Susan Shore, PT, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. Shore also points to the department’s extensive technology resources, such as required iPads for each student; iTunesU access for all lectures, which ensures continuity and consistency of information; innovative apps created by APU faculty; interactive lab manuals; and a vast video library that makes all techniques, evaluation processes, diagnoses, and treatments available for study anytime, anywhere.

This combination of academic rigor and holistic training produces successful private practitioners and highly desirable additions to medical groups, clinics, and consortia. “I hire APU alumni because they approach their career as a mission, not a job,” said Mark Baker, DPT ’04, PT, OCS, owner, Covina Hills Sports Medicine. “APU graduates have an underlying moral fortitude. It is clear that their professional lives align with their personal lives.”

Baker employs 3 APU graduates (11 overall since he began his business). He joins a long list of other California employers who seek physical therapists with a degree from Azusa Pacific. The department holds a 97-percent graduation rate, a 100-percent employment rate, and, in 2016, an impressive 100-percent first-time pass rate (compared to the country’s average of 93.3 percent) on the national licensure exam. “APU students succeed because they are trained to treat the patient in front of them,” said Brandan King, DPT ’12, OCS, senior physical therapist at Kaiser Permanente. “Most graduates have book smarts, but APU’s hands-on curriculum and training put them in a better position to translate their knowledge to the treatment of real-life patients.” King points to the forward-thinking, innovative faculty who constantly evaluate the curriculum and adjust it to fit the evolving needs in the field. “APU’s DPT faculty emphasize more than the accumulation of skills; they teach and model clinical reasoning, which is one of the most important factors when treating patients.”

Like physical therapists, teachers also face a wide-open California job market in the coming years, although the circumstances differ. In 2016, the Learning Policy Institute reported dramatic teacher shortages throughout the state, particularly in the areas of special education, mathematics, and science. The study revealed that 75 percent of 200 districts surveyed experienced steadily increasing shortages. The reason lies in a complex set of conditions, including a slowing, sometimes stagnant, supply of credentialed graduates (remaining at 11,500 since 2013); a glut of substandard credentials and permits issued to underqualified teachers to meet the demand; and low enrollment in teacher education programs. “The teaching profession is in flux,” said Anita Fitzgerald Henck, Ph.D., dean and professor of the School of Education. “On a national level, the field suffers from a fluctuating economy, a high burnout rate, and a perception problem.”

Azusa Pacific meets those obstacles head on by producing a different caliber of teacher. APU’s School of Education begins by ensuring that every program meets the highest standards possible. “Although we are only required to obtain regional and state accreditation, we choose to submit to the national standards as well,” said Henck. Under the watchful eye and scrupulous reviews of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, APU offers students the assurance of a closely scrutinized, top-notch education.

In addition, APU provides the advantage of unmatched support and creative approaches to teacher preparation. “One of the main reasons for educator burnout is that new teachers face overwhelming classroom dynamics for which they have not been trained,” said Henck. Although California instituted the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program in 1988 to encourage new teachers and increase retention, APU takes it several steps further by equipping all education students with a cadre of interdisciplinary courses regardless of the credential they seek, covering topics, trends, and issues most education programs miss. “These courses provide a working knowledge of the benefits and challenges of a diverse classroom, help teachers prepare for the unexpected, and instill an in-depth understanding of policies, procedures, and inner workings of today’s school systems,” she said. School of Education graduates also gain a unique perspective on their careers while at APU. “Teaching is a calling,” said Henck. “We help students explore what that means personally and professionally, and help them discover their passion for education.”

These skills prove vital to every classroom, including those with special needs students. Those drawn to this critical field find unparalleled training at Azusa Pacific and a plethora of districts clamoring to hire them. In 2015-16, APU, the state’s fourth-largest recommender of preliminary special education credentials, recommended 106 students for a Preliminary Education Specialist Instruction Credential, assisted 125 students in attaining their Clear Education Specialist Instruction Credential, and conferred 49 Master of Arts in Education degrees with an emphasis in special education.

“When choosing a career in education, it is important to have both a deep sense of purpose and a willingness to grow and innovate as an educator,” said Jerry Almendarez, superintendent, Colton Joint Unified School District, 1 of 150 districts with which APU maintains a relationship. “APU graduates possess a clear sense of their core values, know why they want to become teachers, and have a servant leader’s heart. APU produces focused professionals who believe strongly in what they are doing, constantly reaching for new and better ways to prepare their students.”

“I always recommend Azusa Pacific when candidates ask me which university stands out above the rest,” said Michelle Rush, credential analyst, Hesperia Unified School District. “We have a long list of teachers who have come from APU, and they are always highly qualified. Even as interns, they are well-prepared to take on their own classroom. Their longevity in our district speaks volumes.” Within one year of graduation, more than 95 percent of APU’s educators find employment in their field: 73.8 percent as classroom teachers, 17.9 percent in education-related positions, 3.6 percent pursuing advanced academic programs in education, and all ready to make a difference in the California education system. In fact, Azusa Pacific ranks among the state’s top six credential-recommending institutions.

The healthcare industry has long lamented a pervasive nursing shortage throughout the country, with California leading the way in vacancies with more than 10,000 newly registered nurses needed based on 2015-16 data. The reasons boil down to a growing elderly population, increased access to health care, and an aging workforce. Nursing schools in the state have stepped up to the challenge, as has APU, increasing undergraduate nursing enrollment and creating new pathways to the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree such as the LVN to BSN and the 2+2 program. APU graduates approximately 4 percent of the newly registered nurses in the state, with more than a 90 percent employment rate within 12 months of graduation as more employers seek BSN graduates.

The 2009 introduction of the Affordable Care Act created a unique challenge for nurses in primary care, specifically in Los Angeles County. According to California State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-22nd), chair of the Senate Health Committee, California has the country’s largest number of primary care physicians and nurse practitioners, but ranks only 23rd in the number of primary care physicians per resident. “We need to make better use of the trained healthcare workforce we already have if we are ever going to meet demand, and [family] nurse practitioners are some of the best-trained people in that workforce,” said Hernandez. Offsetting the deficit, APU offers one of the largest Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) programs in the state, with 138 students in San Bernardino, 151 in San Diego, and 315 in Azusa. Approximately 45-50 students graduate every semester, adding 150 primary care providers to the workforce each year.

Another obstacle facing the nursing industry is the dearth of faculty. APU’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) programs address that need. A Nurse Faculty Loan Grant ($1 million annually), awarded to APU’s School of Nursing, forgives 85 percent of loans for those who teach for four years. “We enroll 70 students in our DNP and Ph.D. programs, and more than half take advantage of this grant,” said Aja Tulleners Lesh, Ph.D., RN, dean and professor in the School of Nursing. “This loan forgiveness program is also available to those enrolled in the new MSN in Nursing Education, which encourages graduate nursing students to become clinical or adjunct faculty.”

Yet another shortage area involves specialty units. In 2016, the Hospital Association of Southern California reported the need for 2,320 critical care nurses, 1,392 emergency nurses, 1,072 perioperative nurses, and 864 labor and delivery nurses, due in large part to the high cost of recruiting and training for specialty areas. In the community, needs are increasing for nurses in home health, ambulatory care, case management, and outpatient acute care. APU partners with several area hospitals and a number of community agencies to offer such training to senior BSN students, allowing them to gain experience in their residency and in clinical specialty courses in high-need areas. “For many years, hospitals engaged in providing the best care in the acute setting for patients,” said Lesh. “But with a few exceptions, little attention was given to patient outcomes and their care following discharge.” Now, hospitals focus on reducing patients’ early return to care, minimizing adverse events while hospitalized, and assuring patient satisfaction, creating a new specialty called “care transition,” which carefully manages patients’ return home. Increasingly, healthcare employers look to BSN graduates to manage these transitions. APU received a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration last year to supplement its BSN programs (which graduate 350-400 annually) with case management and care transition skills. “Myriad opportunities exist for nurses—especially those educated at APU—to impact the health of California residents,” said Lesh. “Hospitals, clinics, and private practices alike seek our graduates because of their strong commitment to ethical practice and compassionate care based on Christian values and their own personal deep spiritual commitment.”

“Over the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure of working alongside many APU nursing graduates as members of the care delivery team at Methodist Hospital and Valley Digestive Health Center. I am very impressed with the high quality of nurses APU produces for our community,” said Elias Tarakji, MD, medical director, Valley Digestive Health Center. “I am particularly impressed with the Nurse Practitioner graduates. I find them to be well trained and highly knowledgeable with a great attitude.”

While California, like any region, faces challenges, the Golden State repeatedly rebounds and owes much of that resiliency to its college graduates. Today’s employers require more than ever before, seeking those with honed communication skills, the capacity to collaborate, and the clear ability to think critically and creatively. There has never been a more critical point in California history to increase higher education’s accessibility, retention, and completion, and never a more advantageous time to be an Azusa Pacific graduate.