Rural areas short on workers turn to overseas professionals

Montana has a shortage of nurses, teachers and other workers.


This story is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Cherie Taylor, CEO at Northern Rockies Medical Center in Cut Bank, Montana, 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,” Taylor says. “Thank goodness a lot of baby boomers are hanging on and not retiring, or we would be in a national crisis right now.” Taylor adds NRMC might be recruiting a fifth Filipino nurse if she can’t fill her last RN vacancy with a nurse from the U.S.

Shelby Schools Superintendent Elliott Crump knows first-hand 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 United States and ended up hiring four teachers from the Philippines.

These employers are among a growing number in the state who must go outside not only Montana, but also the United States, 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 occupation in the Montana Healthcare Industry. 

Shelby Elementary School first grade teacher Jessilou Canada is one of four Filipino teachers in the Shelby School District.
LeAnne Kavanagh

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

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 immigrants are vital members of Montana’s labor force across a range of industries. They comprised 2.2 percent of the state’s labor force in 2015. 

Immigrant workers were most numerous in the following industries: educational services with 1,897 positions; accommodation and food services at 1,855; mining quarry oil and gas extraction jobs at 1,784 and healthcare and social assistance at 1,551.

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

Kalispell Regional Healthcenter’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 Officer 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 them to obtain the needed certification, as well as finding housing in Cut Bank and helping them get established. The whole process can take a month or two, says 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 [registered nurse] wages to companies,” says 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. “No one has been here three years yet, so we do not know what they will choose to do. We would be happy with a 50 percent retention rate,” says Taylor, adding, “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,” says Crump.

All four teachers hired to work in Shelby were required to have a master’s degree and at least three years of experience. Crump says the organization that helped Shelby Schools hire their four teachers paid for all the teachers’ expenses to come to Shelby 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,” says Crump.

The four Filipino educators 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 Oral Proficiency Interviews on certification. Two of our Filipino teachers are fully certified while the other two are on Class 5 licenses,” says Crump. “We hope to have this resolved this year. Last year Shelby Schools received accreditation deviations because our Filipino teachers were not ‘certified’ by the OPI. Mind you, they all have master’s degrees and have been teaching for at least three years.”

One of the Filipino teachers needs to go back and take college classes even though he has a master’s degree and over 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,” says Crump.

Mary Jell Capillo is a registered nurse at Northern Rockies Medical Center in Cut Bank. Capillo is a native of the Philippines.
LeAnne Kavanagh

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

“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,” says Crump.

Mary Eme Manda is one of the four Filipino teachers 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 had her first visit to Glacier National Park, thanks to fellow teacher Thad White and was finally able to conquer her anxiety and learn to ride a bike, thanks to 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 she is quick to add, she is looking 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 “high quality mentorship” during her first year in Shelby. “Without it, I would have become another statistic, quitting after my first year on the job,” she says. “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,” says 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.”

His wife, Lauri, also a teacher, reiterated the difficulty in recruiting quality teachers to rural Montana. “We have had such a hard time getting teachers and retaining them in certain positions due to pay issues and young people wanting to be located by family or populated areas.”

According to Crump, the Shelby community has been very supportive of the Filipino teachers since their arrival two years ago. Many community members donated furniture and other household items to them. 

Lauri Tokerud says the Filipino teachers have been “so appreciative of any act of kindness toward them.” When one of them had to return home to the Philippines for personal reasons, the community joined together and purchased a plane ticket and held fundraisers to meet the teacher’s other expenses.

 “We have had many nice times with them such as baking Christmas cookies,” says Tokerud. “Most in the Philippines do not have ovens and they buy all of their baked goods, so we all had a great time introducing them to something we take for granted like an oven.”

She adds, “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 also. They have been as asset to the school district and community.” 

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

Taylor says NRMC has not experienced any language barrier issues with their Filipina nurses. “All of our nurses are fairly easy to understand, even if they are timid,” noted Taylor. 

In Shelby, some students had difficulty with the teachers’ accents at first, says 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.”

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

 “Putting quality teachers in front of my students is my top priority, regardless of the additional work it takes to bring in an out-of-country employee to meet that need,” says Crump. “Our Filipino teachers are awesome.”

Taylor described the Filipina nurses at the center as not only “very dependable” but also a very economical option for staffing. “It could save a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to having to use traveling [registered nurse] companies,” says Taylor. “The quality of our care has increased since we have started to use foreign nurses. It enables us to not be short staffed.”

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