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Annual Report | Health: RNs with bachelor's degrees in demand

Carol Gilbertson, left, a registered nurse at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, reviews a chart with co-worker Sherry Russell, also a registered nurse, on the second-floor medical/surgery department. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - If there is one degree that opens many opportunities in the health care industry, it just might be the registered nursing degree.

"The RN bachelor's degree is one of the most valuable (degrees) because of its flexibility," said Brian Matthews, human resource director for Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

Someone with an RNB degree can choose from an array of career paths as he or she charts a career course.

Matthews compared the RNB degree to an accounting degree. Both provide the necessary foundation of educational knowledge, but can be specialized to fit the company, or health care department, that an individual wants to explore.

"There's a lot of flexibility to follow the career path of your choice," he said.

Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota currently has about 100 open positions, Matthews said. The majority are clinically focused, requiring at least a two-year degree.

Cynthia Haskin, director of critical care for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, said Sanford is experiencing a need for specialized staff, such as in oncology and dialysis.

"We're seeing a need for increasing skill sets," she said.

That's not to say the health care provider is not seeking new graduates - Sanford in early June already had interviewed between eight and 10 new grads - but, increasingly, Sanford is seeking those with specialties.

In nursing, Haskin said, the four-year RNB degree becomes crucial as employees seek to move into more roles with more leadership.

"A bachelor's degree helps set your career in motion," she said.

As Sanford entered the Bemidji community and merged first with MeritCare and then with North Country Health Services, health care offerings in the community expanded as well.

This has equaled more opportunities for new and existing staff, Haskin noted. Expansions, such as in cardiac care, have offered more opportunities for specialization.

Sanford maintains close connections with Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College, Haskin said, allowing students to come to Sanford facilities to complete their clinicals.

"It's a great opportunity to see what students have available in their skill sets," she said.

Every clinical position now requires some technological skills, Matthews said. In the past five years, IT skills have become increasingly important. Sanford, too, is looking to hire dedicated IT personnel.

"There has been a surge in the volume of employees with an IT focus in the industry," he said.

Sanford also is seeking employees who have fine-tuned the so-called "soft skills," or personal skills, for dealing with patients and co-workers.

"I don't think you can emphasize enough the value of verbal and written communication skills," he said.

Haskin said Sanford works closely with the two local higher education colleges so potential employers already know what students are learning in classrooms.

"What I want to know is how they're using it," she said.

Sanford Heath of Northern Minnesota has about 1,600 employees and usually about 100-120 job openings at any one time.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development combines health and social assistance in reporting employment data. In 2011, there were 3,247 people employed in both health and social assistance jobs within Beltrami County.

Both Matthews and Haskin praised the industry and said students considering their futures should examine their strengths and goals and find a career that fits.

"There are a wide variety of types of jobs available and available in good supply" in health care," Matthews said.

"You don't have to necessarily be a nurse at the bedside," Haskin agreed,