Our entire country was turned upside down by COVID-19. Yet, the health care system and the frontline heroes who cared for us all throughout the course of the pandemic felt the impact reverberate like no other. More than 115,000 health care workers worldwide died from COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.

Jason Aubrey, CEO, MedCerts (Photo: MedCerts)

Now, as hospitals and medical centers mandate employee vaccinations, employers fear that what’s left of the industry, will be driven out. Still, each day in the United States, the demand for health care workers at every level—from medical assistants to pharmacy technicians to nurses to phlebotomists—continues to grow.

While a shortage of health care workers has existed for decades, the events of the past 18 months have provided us with yet another opportunity to address this persistent challenge.

But simply wishing this problem away, or pretending it doesn’t exist, won’t fix what we know is broken. To better ensure our health care system can outlast the challenges brought on by the virus—and to pandemic-proof our health care system for the future—we must fundamentally change the way we train health care workers and set them up for success.

The first step is making training more accessible. Health care education has largely been an in-person endeavor. But with the advances in technology, and the simulation and VR capabilities of online learning, it is a comparable learning option.

There simply needs to be a greater push to provide more training opportunities online. This would increase access for those unable to travel to a classroom or hospital—especially since the pandemic forced universities and colleges across the country to cancel in-person learning options. It could also help potential workers who live in areas where in-person training opportunities are hard to come by.

In fact, one of the best benefits of providing online training is the flexibility that comes with it.  When adults can take classes based on their own schedule, they have the freedom to continue working in their current jobs and journey toward completing a training program simultaneously. Some online training programs for jobs in the health care field, such as MedCerts, even provide individuals with the opportunity to complete necessary certifications in as little as ten weeks before starting off on a new career path.

But to address the dire shortage of health care workers we face today, we need to make sure that option becomes the norm—not just the exception.

Employers can also be part of the solution by offering some level of hands-on training for students attending online schools and programs that already make education more accessible and affordable. Simultaneously, they can work with schools to recruit, train, and place candidates that meet their criteria. This is a viable option to fill vacancies at scale and improve employee retention by sponsoring this training.

That’s why the second step is making training more affordable. While state-level grants and federal programs are a good start and help increase the number of workers training for various health care roles, we need to ensure that more corporations support and play an active role in investing in reskilling programs. There are so many resources available to help potential health care workers retrain for new careers at a low cost, but more corporate buy-in would go a long way to increase access and awareness of these programs.

More businesses should also play an active role in reskilling their existing employee base and retaining their current workforce. Companies have much to gain by providing financial incentives for health care workers, as this upfront investment in the workforce is far more affordable than the costs associated with a high turnover rate or the consequences of leaving the health care industry understaffed during this public health crisis or those to come.

Finally, once new workers are trained for open positions, we need to ensure they have good reasons to stay. Right now, the average salary for a medical assistant is just over $15 an hour. Simply put—making minimum wage is not commensurate with the hard work and dedication these health care workers devote to their jobs on a daily basis. By increasing the pay and benefits for our health care workers, we can better ensure they stay in their jobs longer and possibly limit the worker shortage along the way.

There is no telling what the future holds, but there’s also no denying that our health care system is struggling to keep pace with the barrage of demands being placed on it. By making training for these jobs more accessible and affordable, and by incentivizing workers with better salaries and support, we can fortify our health care worker pipeline. This strategy may be our best chance at pandemic-proofing our health care system and the only way to protect our nation against any future crises that may arise.

Jason Aubrey is the CEO of MedCerts, a leader in online career certification training.