Guest Commentary: High school education explains our shortage of health care providers

Originally published in The Denver Post – May 23, 2019

Like a lot of teens then and now, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school. Fortunately, I figured it out quickly in college — getting my undergraduate degree in exercise physiology and a master’s in education that set me up to work as a health and PE teacher — but not every student finds their path that way. And those delays can set students back for years.

The good news is that there’s so much opportunity for today’s young people. They’re graduating into one of the best job markets in decades. Colorado’s health care and social assistance field alone is expected to grow 34.13 percent between 2017 and 2027, and each year, the state will need to add 1,100 clinicians. The problem is, we’re only graduating half that number from programs in Colorado annually, with the majority that come to work here — 80 percent of physicians and dentists and 60 percent of pharmacists, nurses and dental hygienists — getting their education elsewhere.

We could easily increase and retain Coloradans interested in health care if we change the way we currently educate our students. We just need to help our students become “career ready” by pairing their traditional classroom work with opportunities to connect to future careers while they’re still in school.

There’s a misconception out there about career readiness, based on old understandings of what “vocational” classes used to be. Modern offerings are about helping students come to and decide on a career they wish to pursue, then guiding them through whatever steps come next whether that’s college, a certificate program, and/or on-the-job experience.

In an education that’s focused on true career readiness, students are given the power to meaningfully decide what they get out of their education. They’re not just taking core classes and picking random “fun” electives, they’re more strategically thinking about how what they do in high school will help them lead a long-term, successful career.

Sometimes, students can even start working right away. For example, I teach a high-level pharmacy tech class, and after just three semesters, students have all the knowledge they need to take a certification test. If they pass, they can get their high school diploma, find a pharmacy tech job and start out at a salary of about $32,000 per year. That’s a sizable chunk of change for an 18-year-old, money that could be saved up for college should they choose they someday want to go.

On the other hand, even if they aren’t 100 percent certain of what job they want after high school, career-ready students have an advantage over most of today’s high schoolers because they’ll have a better idea of how their how interests align with certain industries and what job options are available within them. They’ll also know what some entry-level requirements are, so if they need to go to college, they can get started on their postsecondary degree sooner rather than later through concurrent enrollment.

Given how expensive college education is, this saves students time, money (since they will be less likely to switch majors and delay their graduation date) and, if they wind up pursuing a career in health sciences, ensures Colorado lives will be in capable hands.

At the end of the day, our entire local and national economy depends upon our people’s health and wellness. That’s why health care jobs will always be in demand, and why we must do a better job of helping interested students discover this path. Intervention starts in high school, where educators should be helping students become both college and career ready.

Ann Marie Andrews is a health sciences teacher at the Destinations Career Academy of Colorado, a K12-powered school.

To learn more about Destinations Career Academy of Colorado, visit

KEYWORDS: Inspiring Educators

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