BEMIDJI -- Representatives of health care providers and organizations were brought together for a virtual roundtable by the state on Wednesday to discuss what staffing looks like as 2021 gets underway.

The discussion was organized by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, with guests including employers, educators and others in the field of health. According to Steve Grove, the DEED commissioner, healthcare is Minnesota's strongest industry, as it employs the most people and brings in considerable revenue.

However, Grove also said Wednesday that he was aware of staffing issues in various sections of the state.

"We knew, even before this crisis hit that jobs in health care faced challenges," Grove said. "That there were providers struggling to hire people. The workforce shortage has been something we've spent a lot of time talking about, even before a year ago. The industry has faced even more challenges since then, given the state of the pandemic."

Megan Steigauf, executive director of human resources at Sanford Health in Bemidji, called the past year a "roller coaster" when it came to staffing.

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"It's been up and it's been down," Steigauf said. "We've learned things from a staffing perspective throughout this last year. I'd say we've ranged from having a lot of available staff to help anywhere we needed to very little staff available. So, we learned how we can get creative to get our building staffed to take care of patients."

Steigauf said this included working with a third party to bring in traveling nurses, as well as training current employees to work in other departments.

"Many people stepped up to the plate during that time," Steigauf said.

Karla Eischens, vice president of operations for Sanford, also spoke to the Pioneer, and said that 98 employees were upskilled to handle other duties than they had been doing previously.

Throughout the whole pandemic, Steigauf said Sanford Health, which has more than 2,000 employees in northern Minnesota, didn't lay off or furlough any staff.

Moving forward, Eischens said the provider will have to be flexible as the pandemic moves into the vaccination phase.

"I think part of COVID has been that it doesn't just impact the number of inpatients, it also affects our clinic volumes," Eischens said. "Our clinic visits during the pandemic had been down. Now, to administer the vaccines, it will be a lot more work. So as COVID goes down in patients, our vaccine administration will be going up."

In addition to vaccinations, health officials noted on Wednesday that many Minnesotans have been putting off elective procedures and care, which will mean a growing need for employees because of the demand. During the roundtable, long term care was also highlighted as being more in demand, as the Baby Boomer generation grows older.

To help providers tap into more of the workforce for these needs, Grove said it's important to carry the message that there are positions needed at all levels.

"A theme we've heard from you a lot is that there are many jobs in the field where an extensive medical degree might not be necessary," Grove said. "People think of health care, and they think of a PhD as what you need to enter the industry. But there are roles at all facets of the industry."