The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the nation will need an additional 26,300 respiratory therapists by the year 2029. Who is going to attract these new people to the field? In large part, the job falls to educators in the profession, who work year-in and year-out to fill spots in their programs.
Three educators explain how they address student recruitment and why they believe some tactics work better than others.
Show and tell
For Curtis Aumiller, MS, MBA, RRT, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, RPFT, student recruitment is best achieved when educators reach out to young people getting ready to choose a college major with hands on demonstrations showing what the profession has to offer.
“If the students get to touch things and see how we operate, it engages more of their senses and makes for a more lasting impression,” says the program director at HACC in Harrisburg, PA. He provides potential students with this kind of experience during regular open house days where faculty and current students guide potential students on tours of their various labs.
Aumiller makes it a point to feature neonatal-pediatrics as well as ICU care during the sessions, since so many students come to the college wanting to go into nursing and work with infants. “I set up our lab with one bed as a NICU with a vent and all the toys, one bed as an adult ICU with all the toys running,” he says. He also uses a pair of human lungs in the demonstrations, along with pig lungs.
“The key is keeping the talk short, and encouraging people to touch things, including the human lungs,” says Aumiller. “I tell them, when will you ever get another chance to touch a human lung?”
Current students are on hand during the demonstrations to answer any questions the potential students may have. “I have gotten many new students from this approach,” he says.
Aumiller doesn’t really advocate for serious recruitment activities much earlier than late high school, though. “I do not find that recruitment in elementary or middle school is effective,” he says. “People change their minds about what they want to be when they ‘grow up’ a million times.” That said, however, he sees no harm in reaching out to elementary and middle schools to raise general awareness of the profession during talks on respiratory health. “Exposure to the field and the words ‘respiratory therapist’ at least puts us in the running when many times people have never heard of a respiratory therapist.”
When he is invited to go out to classrooms studying the respiratory system, he’ll take some students along and bring his pig lungs as well, giving the children a chance to inflate the lungs and touch them. “I also use grapes to talk about the alveoli and respiratory bronchioles,” he says. “I then have the students each take a grape — nice treat for them — and then show the bare stems to talk about how damage to the alveoli is permanent and how hard it is to breath if you have no grapes!”
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in his program but Aumiller says recruitment in this age of social distancing is still a challenge. His college is currently conducting virtual open houses to keep the momentum going.
Focusing on existing students
Marby McKinney, MEd, RRT, RRT-NPS, AE-C, program director at Alvin Community College in Alvin, TX, turns to her marketing department to help with student recruitment and she also targets students taking prerequisites for respiratory care.
“Our marketing department has used Google ad words and Facebook ads because our marketing budget is so small,” she says. “I have recently focused my attention toward current students at our institution.”
Since Anatomy and Physiology I and II are prerequisite courses for several health care programs, including respiratory care, focusing on those students makes sense. “I have been working with the biology department to share our spirometers when they talk about lung volumes, and in turn I get a plug for my program,” she says.
Like Aumiller, she sees little value in trying to recruit young schoolchildren to consider respiratory care as their future career choice. “I know many programs think this strategy is productive, but I have not had luck with it,” says McKinney. “When I do demos for elementary and middle school tours, they are not very focused and tend to pull the conversations off topic.”
COVID-19 has compromised her current class of students. While she agrees with many that the pandemic has raised awareness of respiratory therapists, the restrictions placed on college campuses has meant fewer students in this fall’s class.
“I was in the middle of an application period when our college closed in March,” explains McKinney. “I had a nice-sized applicant pool of qualified candidates, but with the uncertainty of clinical placement and access to labs on campus and social distancing requirements while on campus, we chose to accept fewer students into our fall 2020 cohort.”
Lots of help
Paul Eberle, PhD, RRT, is chair of the department of respiratory therapy at Weber State University in Ogden, UT. He says his college admission and advising office has been a big help in his recruitment efforts, as has the Northern Utah Area Health Education Council (NUAHEC).
“Our college admission and advising office evaluates applicants, and interviews and mentors students for their preferred program,” says Eberle. They also sit in on interviews and offer advice on the applicant’s interviewing skills, with 50% of the selection criteria focusing on academics and 50% on interpersonal communication skills. “They frequently offer advising sessions to applicants to help with interview skills and improve standing in the selection pool,” he says.
At Weber State, the College of Health Professions houses 10 programs and not all applicants are accepted into all of the programs they are interested in. That has been a boon to his department.
“The respiratory therapy program has one base baccalaureate program and two satellite cohorts that have seen a slight dip in qualified applicants seeking admission from competitive selection,” explains Eberle. “As a result, we have contacted unsuccessful applicants to other programs that meet program admission requirements to apply to become respiratory therapists.”
He has seen many of those students rise to the fore. “These students have become some of the best practitioners and have appreciated the opportunity to serve others in a rewarding career that allows practitioners to use the full extent of their skills,” he says.
Recruiting in local schools is carried out through the NUAHEC, which is housed on campus and organizes classroom visits for health professions programs in elementary schools, junior high schools and via the Health Occupations Student Association chapters at high schools. “Our faculty teach a few skills with the group, and many students investigate or generate interest after these interactions with the group, particularly because the idea was planted years earlier,” he says.
On a program level, his bachelor’s degree students are required to engage in a health promotion project prior to graduation that takes them into the classroom to teach health classes. “Often, they display healthy lungs and diseased lungs to reinforce behaviors that facilitate disease,” he says. The sessions have been a hit — so much so that he has received requests from area principals asking if RT students can come talk to fifth graders about the dangers of vaping. PTA groups have asked about having presentations made before their groups as well.
Has COVID-19 impacted recruitment efforts in his program? Eberle believes young people interested in health care are driven more by an inner desire to serve than by the news. “Prospective students, I believe, have a universal quality of wanting to help others; it’s in their core set of beliefs, an innate quality that propels them into service of others.”
Making the short list
Recruiting the next generation of RTs is a complicated task with many moving parts. But as these educators suggest, the best results come from targeting young people who are getting ready to enter college or are already in their first year of courses. They will have to choose a major sooner rather than later, and now is the time to let them know why respiratory care should be on their short list.
But introducing the profession to younger kids in health education classes has some value too. That way when they do get ready to choose a program of study, the words “respiratory therapist” will be more likely to ring a bell.
COVID-19 may be making it harder to recruit students right now, but eventually it will help ensure that bell is rung as well.