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August 1, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

College program might go away, and with it help for people, economy

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Leila Navidi

Students Susan Ray, left, and Thom Bowen give a presentation during occupational therapy class at College of Southern Nevada Charleston campus in Las Vegas Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012.

Occupational Therapy at CSN

Teacher Leanne Candeloro, center, talks with students Kate Johnson, left, and Lucy Grossi during occupational therapy class at College of Southern Nevada Charleston campus in Las Vegas Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012. Launch slideshow »
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J. Patrick Coolican

There are 122 job openings for occupational therapists in Southern Nevada and another 78 openings for occupational therapy assistants.

People trained in the field help the disabled or people undergoing physical or cognitive changes become active and independent. Patients often include disabled children and older adults. We have many people in these categories and not enough therapists to treat them.

More frustrating than that, the state’s only accredited occupational therapy assistant program, at the College of Southern Nevada, is on probation from an accreditation board and in danger of going extinct.

“It’s a real shame we’re in this situation. It’s a shame for the community and a shame for the students,” said Patricia Castro, dean of health sciences at CSN.

The situation is emblematic of a problem plaguing our economy here and nationally: plenty of job openings but not enough people with the right education, skills and training to fill them.

The reason for the probationary status is that CSN has been unable to recruit a permanent program director. The program also needs an academic field work coordinator, who would work with clinicians to ensure students receive real-world experience.

CSN can’t recruit anyone because it doesn’t offer a competitive salary. The program director position requires a master’s degree, while the field work coordinator requires a bachelor’s degree.

CSN can’t pay more than $57,000 (though public benefits are fairly generous). Even an entry-level occupational therapist earns close to that amount, and one with experience would earn much more, up to $130,000, Castro said. (The previous program director left the state, which points to another ongoing problem here: brain drain.)

Given the college’s $123 million operating budget, I wondered why CSN can’t come up with an extra $10,000 or $20,000 for each position to recruit qualified candidates. Spokeswoman K.C. Brekken explained the problem in an email: “Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. CSN salaries are set by a salary schedule established for all of the community college employees through the Nevada System of Higher Education.”

All of this is unfortunate because historically, 90 percent of the program’s graduates have passed the national board exam.

Students currently in their second year will be able to finish.

On Wednesday, I watched a second-year class taught by Leanne Candeloro in which students were role-playing to learn about various forms of mental illness. Kate Johnson works as a casino cage cashier but saw opportunity in a field in which she felt she could do well by doing good. She’ll be moving from a sector where we have more than enough workers (tourism) into one where we have a shortage (health care). This is precisely what our community college should be doing.

Amer Khoury was drawn to occupational therapy by his dad’s disability following back surgeries. He likes the creativity required by occupational therapy — patients often require a highly individualized treatment plan depending on their needs.

Lucy Grossi had been in real estate and then an aesthetician before realizing she wanted to work with children, and that occupational therapy was a more stable career.

All three expressed interest in continuing their education and obtaining master's degrees — Touro University has a program — to become full occupational therapists. They’ve been checking out the job market, and they are all optimistic.

Although CSN is still looking to fill the positions and get the program off probation, it has stopped accepting new students. Twenty-seven had applied.

I was alerted to this story by a reader who was inspired by her autistic children to try to become an occupational therapy assistant.

That dream is now gone.

Someone, please fix this.

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