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College in Wyoming wins $3 million grant to expand health-care worker pipeline

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Eric Galatas

(Wyoming New Service) Western Wyoming Community College has won a competitive $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration's task force charged with helping coal communities diversify and strengthen local economies. 

Heidi Brown is the director of Western's nursing program. She said as Wyoming and the nation continues to experience a shortage of health-care workers, the grant will help bring more people into a rewarding field.

"Our nursing degree is a two-year degree," said Brown. "It's a robust program, and they are employed usually by their last semester. Everybody has employment. They get good benefits and good salaries."

Students can earn a Certified Nursing Assistant certificate in a single semester. 

The federal grant will be matched with state and local funds to create a Health Science wing on Western's main campus in Rock Springs, adding more than ten thousand square feet of new laboratories and classrooms. 

In 2011, coal produced just 44 percent of all electricity in the U.S. - and is projected to drop to 10 percent or less by 2030 because of cheaper renewable fuels.

Aaron Pratt, a representative of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, said Western's application stood out in part because a number of industry supporters said graduates would be hired in jobs paying a living wage. 

The grant is funded through the agency's Assistance to Coal Communities initiative ... "Which is a program set up to address the real challenges that coal-impacted communities are facing when there are contractions in the coal economy," said Pratt. "So we are trying to focus on those communities and what's going to set them up to be resilient and successful and competitive in the future."

Amy Murphy is Western's dean of outreach and workforce development. 

She said that while cost remains the biggest barrier for students completing degrees or certificates, state programs now cover education costs if students commit to working in health care for two years in Wyoming.

She added that Western has many tools to ensure the price tag works for each student, regardless of their financial situation.

"Western has an abundance of scholarships that are available that will help offset that," said Murphy. "We currently have a day-care grant, that if they do have children, that we can help offset day-care costs to them."

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.