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Plan would tap fund to train more nurses in Miss.

Mississippi’s chief of junior colleges has questions about legislation designed to meet the state’s growing demand for nurses.

The state Board of Community and Junior Colleges would develop an online course for licensed practical nurses to receive an associate’s degree, under a bill that has passed the House and is now headed to the Senate. The program would be paid for with money from the state’s Workforce Enhancement Training Fund.

Eric Clark, president of the junior college board, said an effective nursing program involves clinical work and it’s unclear how an online program could accommodate those requirements. He also said adding another financial obligation to the workforce training fund would strain it.

Money for the fund, which was created in 2005, is generated from a fraction of what manufacturing companies pay into the Mississippi Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The workforce training fund pays to teach new skills to about 150,000 people each year in robotics, automotive maintenance, computers, welding and other programs, Clark said.

“I have doubts about the wisdom for opening up another avenue to spend that money at this particular time in our state’s economy,” Clark said. “If it goes away, then we’re not able to provide the training for the 150,000 people a year.”

Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Doug Davis, a Republican from Hernando, said he also wants to be cautious about how the workforce training fund is spent. He said the unemployment trust fund has to maintain a balance of at least $500 million for the workforce training fund to continue receiving its portion. The trust fund currently has $653.9 million in it, but officials worry the balance might start dropping as unemployment goes up.

“We are watching the balance on that account very closely to make sure we stay eligible,” Davis said.

The bill has been referred to Davis’ committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Rep. George Flaggs, a Democrat from Vicksburg, said the legislation would help ensure there’s a steady stream of new nurses in the state. He said he disagreed that the bill could put the workforce training fund at risk.

“That’s the purpose of the fund. We just have to look at how we’ll have to replenish the fund,” Flaggs said.

No one questions the need for more nurses in Mississippi. The state has a vacancy rate of 8.3 percent. That’s equivalent to about 1,200 registered nurses, said Wanda Jones, executive director of the Mississippi Office of Workforce Nursing.

She said the state’s currently graduating that many nurses each year, but the problem is that many nurses are currently at retirement age and “a lot of nurses want to do the travel nursing and see the country.”

A faculty shortage further exacerbates the situation. Jones said 25 percent of the faculty members at community colleges and universities are eligible for retirement. Lawmakers approved a $12,000 annual raise for nursing faculty a few years ago and that slowed the exodus from schools.

Debra Spring, assistant dean of nursing and allied health at Hinds Community College, said lately the school has been able accept most students who apply for the program. In the fall, about 160 students are accepted on the Raymond and Rankin County campuses. The figure is around 120 in the spring because the program is only offered at Raymond.

“We’re not turning away a lot of people,” Spring said. “One year, we turned away as many as we took in.”