MSU health fair

Mike Follett, Billings Clinic Executive Director of Business Development, opens the Student Professional Development Summit at MSU Billings on Thursday. High school and college students interested in medical careers attended the conference.

About 300 high school students got a crash course in the health care industry Thursday, hearing from a host of professionals about careers from nursing to human resources.

“Your future is basically starting in high school,” said Skyview sophomore Delia Proffitt.

Indeed, sophomores like Proffitt are making decisions now about taking courses that could put them on track to earn an emergency medical technician or certified nursing assistant certification, or to earn college credit in biology or chemistry, all while still in high school.

A quick start isn’t make-or-break for health care jobs. But figuring things out early is an advantage, especially when pursuing a four-year-or-more degree.

If nothing else, Proffitt and her peers are hoping to get some kind of window into their potential real-world job, so they can continue down that path or hop on a different one before racking up student debt in college.

Proffitt wants to become a nurse, and she knows some people in the industry. But fellow Skyview sophomore Abby Penninger, who’s also interested in nursing, hasn’t even had the chance to meet a nurse.

On Thursday, she had the chance to meet nurses in three different specialties.

But the event, hosted at Montana State University Billings, focused on more than the jobs that involve blood and guts.

“We really wanted to focus on having clinical and non-clinical professions,” said Karen Baumgart, who leads BillingsWorks.

Katie Hagenbuch, who works in human resources at Billings Clinic, described trying to recruit computer science majors.

“They looked at me like I was a crazy person,” she said. But the hospital has major IT infrastructure and other computer-focused needs, she said.

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The recruiters also offered some advice to give young people an advantage when trying to find a job. 

Previous work in a health care setting “is valued very highly,” said Kelly Frost, especially for fields like nursing that like applicants who have CNA experience.

Billings’ Career Center offers courses aimed at preparing students for CNA and EMT certification.

During breakout sessions, students heard from professionals in fields like athletic training, communicable diseases, population health, pharmacy, and medical coding. 

The event was funded by a grant from the Montana Biosciences Alliance, a group that represents laboratories, hospitals, and universities.

Part of the motivation for sponsoring the event is the job market for fields like lab technicians, said the group’s executive director Sharon Peterson.

“There’s such a shortage,” she said.

Montana has long had workforce shortages in a variety of health care fields, in both rural and urban areas. In what could be a good sign for employers, enrollment in medical courses at the Billings Career Center has boomed in recent years.

Students from Billings, Shepherd, Huntley Project, MSUB, and Billings' adult education program attended — the type of go-getters who choose to do this sort of thing on their day off school. 

Jodi Bryant, who works in human resources for St. Vincent Healthcare, told students she studied accounting and finance in college before realizing she preferred people to numbers. Even after that, she worked for a steel company before getting into health care. 

"Even if you go down a path, and it's not the right path for you, don't be afraid to change it," she said. 

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