Celebrating Our Nurses Feature Story

May 04, 2021

When it comes to honoring the nursing profession, a week just wasn’t enough. That’s why National Nurses Week – traditionally celebrated from May 6-12 – has been extended to National Nurses Month throughout May.

Orange County’s community colleges celebrate the nursing profession daily, which makes nurses everyday heroes.

Just ask Laurie Sienkiewicz DNP, RN, who for seven years has served as the Orange County Health Sector’s Regional Director for Employer Engagement and has played a critical role in training hundreds of nurses during her more than 30-year career.

“I don’t think it’s cliché at all to say that nurses are heroes,” Sienkiewicz said. “We are heroes to the moms giving birth and creating a family with their first child. We are heroes to patients whose hand we hold and let them know it’s going to be okay. And we are heroes to the families of cancer patients who we care for as they are taking their last breath and to the people we give hope to while they are on the end of their journey.”

Sienkiewicz is part of the California Community Colleges Health Workforce Initiative, bringing together education and industry partners to provide the training that puts people to work, facilitating partnerships with employers and educators to promote the kind of education the evolving healthcare industry requires, working to expand clinical placements, and purchasing high-tech SIM mannequins to address the need of clinical hours apart from being placed in a hospital. 

And for good reason. Since 2009, the health sector in Orange County has added more jobs than any other industry, expanding from the county’s fifth largest industry to its second. In fact, 25% of the fastest-growing jobs in Orange County are in health-related fields. In all, more than 145,000 people are employed in the county’s healthcare industry, representing 10% of the overall labor market.

Orange County has nursing programs at Cypress, Golden West, Saddleback, and Santa Ana colleges, with other allied health options throughout the region. Each program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and California Board of Registered Nursing-approved, with degree programs preparing students to pass the state licensure exam and begin a career as a registered nurse in a variety of health care settings.

“We have amazing faculty. They’re dedicated to students, totally student-centered, and really sensitive to what students’ needs are,” said Dee Oliveri, Nursing Program Director at Saddleback College. 

Excellence has been sharpened by Strong Workforce Program dollars that paid for computerized mannequins simulating real-life scenarios and funded faculty development in college nursing programs. Sienkiewicz’s position is funded through a grant awarded by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office’ Economic and Workforce Development Department.

It is money well spent. 

Demand for health care professionals is growing in Orange County and the need for registered nurses is at the top when it comes to middle-skill jobs, with nearly 1,800 annual openings for a profession that has a median wage of $42.47 an hour – or more than $88,000 annually, according to a 2019 Orange County Center of Excellence for Labor Market Research report.

“Health is one of those legacy sectors that’s been around for a long time,” said Sienkiewicz, who knew she would be a nurse when she was as young as 3. “Health remains a very strong sector within Orange County and California and the country. It is an occupation that is strong and growing.”

The education students receive at Cypress, Golden West, Saddleback, and Santa Ana colleges is as good as it gets. Which means it isn’t a walk in the park.

“Very often people say they want to become a nurse because they want to help people,” Sienkiewicz said. “They may have a relative who was a nurse, or they may have been impacted by seeing the care a nurse provided to a family member who was in a hospital, or maybe they were influenced by something they saw on television. But it is a rigorous journey to become a nurse and it’s very competitive. Our colleges get 200 to 300 or so applications each spring and each fall, and they accept maybe 40 to 50 students.”

She added: “If you are thinking about a career in nursing or the allied health profession, the education you are going to receive at a community college in Orange County is just as rigorous as what you would find at a private school or four-year college or university and our graduates are highly regarded in the field. And that doesn’t even get to the affordability aspect. With the California College Promise Grant, and other grants, a community college education could essentially be very lost cost to cost-free.”