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Updated: Rural communities recruiting foreign workers for hard-to-fill local jobs

From the Montana is growing, but not proportionately. Here's how rural communities are coping with population decline series
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Mary Jell Capillo is one of four nurses from the Philippines working at the Northern Rockies Medical Center in Cut Bank. Capillo came to Montana four months ago.

CUT BANK — Shelby Schools Superintendent Elliott Crump knows firsthand about the teacher shortage in Montana.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction reported 638 full-time openings in the state’s “difficult or hard-to-fill” teaching positions in 2016-17 and Crump’s school district had four of them. When no qualified applicants from Montana, or anywhere else in the United States, applied for those jobs, he started looking outside the U.S. and ended up hiring four teachers from the Philippines.

Cherie Taylor, CEO at Northern Rockies Medical Center (NRMC) in Cut Bank, currently has four Filipina nurses on her staff. The rural health facility employs a total of 12 full-time registered nurses, which includes 10 floor nurses and two nursing administrative positions.

“We have a national registered nurse shortage and all the U.S. nurses cannot fill the vacancies,” she said. “Thank goodness a lot of Baby Boomers are hanging on and not retiring, or we would be in a national crisis right now.”

NRMC might be recruiting a fifth nurse from the Philippines if a final vacancy isn’t filled with a nurse from the United States.

These employers are among a growing number in the state who must go outside not only Montana, but the country, to recruit qualified employees for hard-to-fill vacancies.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s May 2015 Occupational Employment Statistics report lists registered nurses as the top-ranking Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) occupation in the Montana health care industry.

According to a 2015 briefing compiled by CompeteAmerica, Partnership for a New American Economy and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the number of American students pursuing university degrees in the STEM fields is not growing sufficiently to meet demand. “By 2018,'' the briefing states, "the United States will face a shortfall of more than 223,000 advanced degree workers in STEM fields.”

Many Montana employers are faced with that shortfall now, especially those in in the education, health care and tourism-related industries.

In its 2017 study on Immigrants in Montana, the American Immigration Council reported that foreign workers are vital members of Montana’s labor force across a range of industries. The 11,265 immigrant workers comprised 2.2 percent of the labor force in 2015, the study said.

Immigrant workers were most numerous in the following industries:

• educational services, 1,897

• accommodation and food services, 1,855

• mining quarry oil and gas extract, 1,784

• health care and social assistance, 1,551

Some Montana employers use staffing services to recruit an immigrant work force when they cannot find qualified workers stateside.

Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s chief nursing officer Katie Dill introduced Taylor to Guardian Healthcare Providers, a firm that works with foreign nurses to fill U.S. nursing vacancies.

Guardian’s chief nursing office and director of acute care services conducts phone interviews with the candidates to determine if they’re a good fit for NRMC, explains Taylor. When a viable candidate is found, Guardian arranges their travel from the Philippines to Tennessee, and then works with them to obtain the needed certification, as well as find housing in Cut Bank and get established. The whole process can take a month or two, said Taylor.

NRMC has a three-year contract with Guardian for each nurse. Guardian pays the nurses in accordance with NRMC’s pay scale and provides them with a car. “The contract is a huge savings for us compared to paying traveling RN wages to companies,” said Taylor.

She did express frustration with the visa process and how it “really holds things up.”

After the three years, the nurses are free to choose to stay at NRMC or go somewhere else. “We would be happy with a 50 percent retention rate,” said Taylor. “All of them have been very good nurses and hard workers.”

Crump and the local school board were very open with the community during the teacher hiring process two years ago. “We made it clear that we were having difficulty finding qualified individuals and that we were able to find quality teachers abroad,” said Crump.

All four foreign teachers hired to work in Shelby were required to have a master’s degree and at least three years of experience. Crump said the organization that helped Shelby schools with the hiring paid for all the teachers’ travel expenses initially and the teachers are paying the organization back as they work.

“I believe most of them will have their fees completely paid back by the end of this school year,” said Crump.

The four educators from the Philippines joined the Shelby School District and were paid based on their education and experience level. The school district employs 39 full-time teachers.

“We are still working with OPI on certification. Two of our Filipino teachers are fully certified while the other two are on Class 5 licenses. We hope to have this resolved this year,” said Crump.

One of the Filipino teachers needs to go back and take college classes even though he has a master’s degree and more than 20 years of successful teaching experience. “He is one of the best teachers I have ever had the opportunity to work with; unfortunately, he does not meet Montana’s certification requirements,” said Crump.

Crump said to help the teachers adapt to their new home in Montana, the school district did things that are not commonplace in education.

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“We found them housing and drove them around when needed. It took a full year before any of them had a driver’s license, which can be problematic in a state like Montana. And we needed to complete a ton of paperwork,” said Crump.

Mary Eme Manda is one of the four teachers from the Philippines in Shelby. She has enjoyed a lot of firsts since moving to Shelby to teach special education.

Manda has learned to make cookies and bread, thanks to community members and co-workers. She also visited to Glacier National Park with fellow teacher Thad White, and was finally able to conquer her anxiety and learn to ride a bike, with the help of Shelby Elementary School Principal Erica Allen.

What’s next on her “to do” list? Learning how to roller skate at the local civic center.

Manda admits to missing home, but is quick to add that she looks forward to working in Shelby “for a long time. I feel there’s so much room for growth and learning, for both the students as well as myself.”

Jessilou Canada, who also came from the Philippines in 2016 to teach at Shelby Public Schools, credits her success in the classroom and the community to the mentorship she received during her first year in Shelby.

“Without it, I would have become another statistic, quitting after my first year on the job,” she said. “The principal and the rest of the staff are very supportive. … We collaborate, problem-solve and share successes often. I learned a lot from them.”

“Throughout Montana, there is definitely a need to fill teacher vacancies with good and effective teachers," said Erik Tokerud, a longtime teacher in the Shelby School District. "We were very fortunate as we hit home runs with all four Filipino teachers. They all are solid hires and, more importantly, good people."

Tokerud's wife, Laurie, said the Filipino teachers have become a part of the community. “They are very willing to work hard and help out anytime they are asked to help. I know that a couple of them are active in community church groups. They have been an asset to the school district and community.”

Are there language barrier issues when hiring foreign nationals or immigrant workers?

In Shelby some students had difficulty with the teachers’ accents at first, said Crump, but it didn’t take long for students and co-workers to adapt. “It was really just something that occurred during the first couple of weeks and was extremely limited.”

Taylor said NRMC has not experienced any language barrier issues with their Filipina nurses.

Crump, Taylor and Brooke highly recommend other employers consider recruiting and hiring foreign workers for hard-to-fill vacancies.

At the hospital, “the quality of our care has increased since we have started to use foreign nurses,” said Taylor. “It enables us to not be short-staffed.”

The Montana Gap

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