Nancy Scott RN (centre) wins the Herzing College Teacher of the Year award for her outstanding work with health care aide students
Health care aides (HCAs) are in high demand in Winnipeg and across most of Canada. Our rapidly aging population and dwindling health care budgets have long-term care facilities bursting at the seams.
Meanwhile, many seniors are opting to stay in their own homes for longer, creating a need for trained health care aides who can assist them to live safely on their own.
If you're looking for a career in healthcare that doesn't require years of training, but involves challenging, meaningful work—becoming a health care aide is an ideal option.
But what should know about the field before you take the leap and enrol in a program? What exactly are your career options, and how difficult is it to land the most sought-after (best-paid) positions?
We interviewed award-winning health care aide instructor Nancy Scott, RN, to find out. Nancy has taught the program at Herzing College for many years, and actually started as a health care aide herself before becoming a registered nurse.
Nancy shared some very helpful advice on choosing this career, what to expect in training, what skills employers want most, and how to land a great job as a health care aide.
Here's everything you need to know.
Q: Nancy, how does someone know they'd make a great health care aide? What are some clear signs?
Nancy: You know you'd be a good fit for this career if you possess the fou most important qualities for health care aides:
- Desire to help others
- Attention to detail, observation
- Problem-solving, critical thinking
Right from day one in my classroom, we focus on the importance of these characteristics—especially critical thinking and problem-solving.
Health care aides spend so much time with their clients, they're often the first person to notice if something is wrong. Being able to spot signs of trouble, take note of health changes, and respond effectively to challenges is very important for this role.
This is something we work on and keep coming back to, throughout the health care aide program at Herzing.
Q: Many HCAs work with elderly people—but is it possible to specialize in pediatrics, youth, or young adults?
Nancy: Yes, most health care aides work with seniors in hospitals, care homes, and home care companies. But it's certainly possible to specialize with younger adults or kids.
For example, some health care aides work with younger clients who have developmental disabilities, or at group homes for adults who need special care. In rural areas, some of our health care aide graduates have landed jobs as teaching assistants in schools, supporting kids with developmental challenges.
The same goes for group homes. It's more common for group homes to hire community support workers (CSWs), but I've seen health care aides get hired as well.
In general, you'll find that rural areas offer somewhat different career opportunities for health care aides. For instance, I know of health care aides in very small towns who worked with babies in hospitals.
In bigger cities, in hospitals, this is not allowed. It's not within the scope of practice for health care aides to work with babies. So, where you choose to live will have an impact on your career options—but there are definitely ways to follow your interests, and specialize in this field.
Q: What's your view on pay for health care aides? Where are the best-paying jobs?
Nancy: Like many people, I definitely believe that health care aides should be paid more! There's been a push to regulate the occupation, and set higher standards for salaries, but we're not there yet.
In terms of the best-paid positions, HCAs who work in hospitals and the majority of care homes are unionized. These jobs are starting around $17 per hour, going up to around $21 per hour.
We also have a government-run, unionized program called Home Care, which offers the same pay scale.
It's a bit harder to get the higher paying jobs because of course there's more competition. You need a good command of English and excellent clinical skills to be considered.
This is what employers are looking for. They want to know how well you did on your internship, working with real clients in a personal care home. I always tell students, the internship is an eight-week job interview. Work hard, do well, and you'll have excellent job opportunities after graduation.
In fact, I've had several graduates land those top-paying jobs right after training. They start out as a casual and get bumped up to a permanent position within a month.
The best jobs don't necessarily go to health care aides with the most experience. You can break into those higher-paid positions straight out of college—provided you do well in training and on internship.
Q: What kinds of advancement opportunities are out there for HCAs? Supervisor or teaching jobs?
Nancy: Yes, a health care aide could certainly become a teaching assistant at a college like Herzing. I actually hired a graduate to assist me recently, when I had a very large class.
You can also move between departments or specializations. Some people become rehabilitation HCAs or emergency room HCAs. Just keep in mind that if you choose to work in a specialized area, you may require some additional training.
Again, it will depend on where you live. It's a bit different in tiny rural communities, where you might have health care aides supervise others on a team. And that's because the scope of practice is a bit different in rural areas and small towns compared to bigger cities like Winnipeg.
Q: What are some of the top challenges of working as an HCA? What should people know up front?
Nancy: Shift work and working on weekends can be challenging—but it's a fact of life for health care aides and nurses. Even I wasn't totally clear on this when I first went to nursing school!
If you plan to become a health care aide, be prepared to work every second weekend, and also some evenings and nights.
The truth is, your very first job is going to be casual, which means shift work, weekends, evenings, etc. You need to get out there and get some experience—it's part of the deal.
Other than that, new students should know that they'll be very busy and spend most of the day on their feet. But you don't need to be in peak physical condition. I teach health care aide students of all ages and levels of physical fitness. If you're willing to work hard, you'll do just fine!
Q: Speaking of fitness...how physically strong do HCAs need to be? Does age matter?
Nancy: I wouldn't put an age limit on this work. I've taught students as old as 63 years of age. And they do very well. It really depends on whether you're doing the job full time or part time, where you're working, and how busy it is.
I had a student in a knee brace, and one who was legally blind—both successfully completed health care aide training at Herzing. I also had a student who was hard of hearing, and after graduation, she got hired at a top hospital in Winnipeg.
We can often accommodate students who have special needs. The most important thing is being motivated and passionate about the work.
Q: I know you talk to local employers a lot. So, how in demand are HCAs in Winnipeg right now? What are you seeing out in the field?
Nancy: Because of our aging population, there is always demand for health care aides. I can't "guarantee" anyone a job—but I often tell my students, if you take this program and you do well, it is very likely you will get hired.
There is a lot of work out there. I've never heard someone say, "I can't get enough hours."
Have realistic expectations about your very first position, cast a wide net, and apply to many facilities. You'll get your foot in the door. Just remember: you need to gain some experience before you can pick and choose your perfect job, and get your perfect schedule.
Q: Working in home care versus a facility: what are the main differences, pros, and cons?
Nancy: We actually talk about this the first week of class. When you work in the community, you're supporting clients in their own homes. You're alone, working independently—which means you may not have a supervisor to call if you have questions.
So, in that sense, home care often requires more independent decision-making and problem-solving. Also, your responsibilities will be a bit different.
In addition to helping clients with hygiene, medication, exercises, and other daily needs, you'll be doing home management tasks—like cleaning, cooking, and laundry. You'll be making sure their living environment is safe and healthy.
In a facility (hospital, personal care home) you'll be working as part of a team. There will always be a lot of staff around and people to ask for help.
You'll be helping clients with the tasks of daily living, and transporting them to various activities within the facility. But you won't be doing cooking, laundry, or providing medication assistance.
There tend to be more jobs in the community versus care homes and hospitals. One path isn't more popular than the other, though. I find students are equally interested in both. It all depends on your personal preference.
Q: What's the best way to stand out and land a great job as a new HCA? What advice do you give your students?
Nancy: We talk about this right from the start! I always remind students that even though demand is high for HCAs, they'll still need to compete for great jobs.
The number one thing employers want to see? Your clinical evaluation form. They want to know how well you performed on the eight-week practicum. Even beyond your grades for classroom work, your practicum evaluation is crucial for landing a great first job.
Students who show motivation, critical thinking skills, and compassionate client care will get top marks and top jobs. But there's something else to keep in mind: employers will want to see your attendance record.
Why? Because, as I always tell my students, this is not school. This is work. I have all the same policies as a health care facility. No cell phones, give notice if you're going to be absent, and be responsible for what you miss.
We do this to fully prepare health care aide students for the real world of work.
We know that when employers recruit health care aides from our program, they're looking for the most dependable people. At the end of the day, they'd rather hire someone who showed up and worked hard every day over someone who got perfect grades but was less reliable.
Remember that golden rule and you'll do very well in health care aide training and build a successful career in this field.
Want to learn more about Health Care Aide training at Herzing?
We'd love to hear from you. Click the link below to explore the program, get more info about courses and admission requirements, and learn more about our much-loved instructor Nancy Scott. Or fill out the Request Info form on this page to receive program details via email.
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