A Healthy Economy: Orange County’s Health Sector is Thriving with Regional Director Laurie Sienkiewicz Feature Story

December 21, 2019
collage of regional director Laurie Sienkiewics surrounded by health-field related images

Health is a robust and growing industry in Orange County, and the region’s community colleges are well-equipped to keep pace. According to a recent Orange County Center for Excellence (COE) health sector brief, 150,000 people are employed in the health sector in Orange County, and that number is expected to climb 14 percent by 2025.

“So that’s an additional 21,000 jobs in the next five years,” says Orange County health sector Regional Director for Employer Engagement Laurie Sienkiewicz DNP, RN, who mentions that close to 9 percent of the health sector’s employment in the state is from Orange County.

With over 30 years of nursing experience as a practitioner, educator, and administrator, Sienkiewicz is the glue between industry and community colleges, working with nursing and allied health community college programs in the region to create innovative strategies to improve student success, as well as facilitating partnerships between employers and educators.

Sienkiewicz, who has been regional director for the past six years, is housed at her beloved alma mater, Golden West College.

“I knew from the time I was three that I wanted to be a nurse,” shares Sienkiewicz.

For her, Golden West was the perfect place to earn her associate degree in nursing. “I knew that I wanted to come back here and teach one day,” says Sienkiewicz.

“I had great respect for the new Golden West grads that I was hiring when I was working at Hoag Hospital,” she says. “They are very well educated, prepared to take care of patients… So I knew I wanted to come back and continue to give back to the school that gave me so much.”

When it comes to the health sector, Sienkiewicz, who went on to finish a doctorate in nursing, is happy to report that the sector remains a robust part of the economy.

“Health is one of those legacy sectors that’s been around for a long time,” she says. “Health remains a very strong sector within Orange County and California and the country. It is an occupation that is strong and growing.”

The recently released Orange County COE Sector Analysis Project report agrees. The report (which you can read about here) revealed many things that regional community colleges are doing well when it comes to the health sector, including helping meet local workforce demands for health information technicians and pharmacy technicians. The report also offers a roadmap to help regional career education programs address emerging workforce needs for nursing assistants, medical scribes, and phlebotomists, as well as nurse specialty training.

“In terms of our work that we do within the sector, what’s important for us is to use labor market data to project where the future openings are going to be,” says Sienkiewicz, who played a critical role in the OC COE Sector Analysis focus groups. For her, the most critical question is “how can the community colleges meet those needs over the next five years?”

“One of the areas that we hear from industry, not only in Orange County but throughout the whole state, is the need for nurses to fill roles in specialty units,” says Sienkiewicz.

In response, community colleges are stepping up and creating specialty courses to meet hospital demand. Saddleback College, for example, has been offering a Perioperative Training program over several years, and is currently developing specialties in ambulatory surgery and emergency department nursing.

Another major recommendation from the OC COE’s report was for colleges to start developing non-credit programs in health that can launch students into entry-level jobs while building a foundation for further education. Not only are non-credit classes tuition-free, but they can be completed quickly, which is critical for adult learners and mid-career professionals who are looking for an efficient way to transition into a new career or position.

According to Sienkiewicz, “Community colleges are looking at the largest supply gap occupations such as nursing assistants, home health aides, as well as medical scribes and phlebotomy, and beginning and developing those programs at the non-credit side.”

For example, Santiago Canyon College opened a non-credit Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program two years ago, and Santa Ana College is now developing its own CNA program on the Adult Education side. At the same time, Saddleback is currently developing a non-credit program as well, which will launch in fall 2020 and be designed for students to complete over eight weeks.

What is great about these programs, according to Saddleback College Dean of Health Sciences and Human Services Diane Pestolesi, “is that students can become certified, start working, and get hands-on experience in healthcare quickly.”

While Sienkiewics admits that nursing assistant jobs are entry-level and not necessarily high-paying, they provide entry into a field and can lead to greater opportunities. This is important, because as Sienkiewicz explains, “Even though it’s a lower end of the living wage, it’s a great place to get experience and exposure to the health field.”

“And then while they’re working in the healthcare field, they can go back to school and take advantage of tuition reimbursements that most hospitals and healthcare organizations have,” adds Sienkiewicz. “That way, students can get jobs that can help pay for their further education to advance both their careers and their paychecks.”

“We see the difference that entry-to-healthcare programs or allied-health programs make in a student’s life in regards to the academic confidence that it builds,” adds Pestolesi. “They actually can achieve academic goals, where they’re not sure before they do some of these lower-level, entry-level healthcare jobs.”

Significantly, nursing assistant programs are just the beginning when it comes to new non-credit health-related programs. Currently, North Orange Continuing Education (NOCE) has several non-credit health programs, including Medical Assisting, Pharmacy Tech, and Physical Therapy Aid programs, “which are all excellent ways to begin your career in health,” says Sienkiewicz.

NOCE is also in the process of creating non-credit programs for personal care aids, which Orange Coast College has been offering for some time. In another new offering, Saddleback students will be able to pair a non-credit phlebotomy course with introductory courses on clinical and basic lab procedures as part of a non-credit certificate that will prepare students for work as lab assistants in just one semester.

With annual job openings in the health sector projected to climb to 11,799 in the next year, Sienkiewicz knows that Orange County’s community colleges will continue to collaborate and innovate in order to provide the best opportunities to students and keep pace with industry demand.

“We’re strong,” says Sienkiewicz. “And getting stronger.”

For more information on Orange County’s many health-related career education programs, please visit ProgramFinder.