Monday, January 14, 2013

Innovative high school program in Albuquerque, New Mexico successfully tackles youth unemployment and nursing shortage in poorest state in the United States

by Tequila J. Brooks

                Youth unemployment in the United States and European Union have skyrocketed since the economic collapse in 2008.  According to the OECD, the youth unemployment rate in the United States has hovered between 17.3% and 18.4% since 2009.  This is about the same as the youth unemployment rate in Belgium in 2011, slightly below the average in the United Kingdom, France and Sweden (which have been 19-20%, 22-23% and 23-25% respectively), though lower than the average 30% rate in Italy, Portugal and Ireland and the even more troubling figures for Greece and Spain, which increased from 26% and 37% respectively in 2009 to 44% and 46% in 2011.

                Unemployment rates among minority youths in both the US and the EU are even more troubling.  The average unemployment rate among African American teenagers in the US  rose from 39% in 2009 to 43% in 2010.  Among Latino youth in the US, the unemployment rate in 2009 and 2010 hovered around 31-32%.  In EU member states France and Belgium, it is estimated that the minority youth unemployment rate is 1.5 to 2.5 times higher than the general rate.  These estimates tend to be unreliable, however, because of idiosyncratic methods for defining racial and ethnic minorities in most European nations.  In France, it is prohibited to keep statistical data about racial or ethnic status although news reports of youth rioting in the "sensitive urban zones" or ZUS over the last 5-7 years make it clear that there is a racial and ethnic element to youth unemployment in France.  Even in EU member states with low general and youth unemployment such as Germany and the Netherlands, rates of minority unemployment are high.  While Germany  boasts it has the lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU (estimated to be 8.4% by the OECD), the general unemployment rate for people of Turkish origin in Germany is estimated to be between 22-26% or higher.  Similarly, in the Netherlands the youth unemployment rate is around 8% but the general unemployment for racial minority populations is as high as 30-40%.

                Along with the youth unemployment crisis, both continents face a shortage of health care workers, especially nurses.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that there is  an inadequate number of nurses in the European Union to serve the health care needs of an aging population.  The WHO ascribes this shortage to the increased health care needs of Europe's aging population, retirement of older nurses, the decreasing number of young people who choose nursing as a career due to low pay and poor conditions and the migration of nurses to places where they are better paid.  Similarly, the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing has noted a shortage in nursing in North America, Europe and Africa for similar reasons - diminishing pipelines of new students and an aging nursing workforce.  The OECD has noted  nursing shortages in the Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom - though this list is by no means exhaustive, as nursing shortages are prevalent the world over.

                An innovative program developed by Albuquerque Public Schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the poorest state in the US (or one of the top 2 poorest states in the US depending on your source) may provide American, European and global policy makers with the kind of policy mechanism that addresses youth unemployment, minority unemployment and the nursing shortage at the same time. 

                The Albuquerque Public Schools Career Education Center Practical Nursing Program began in 1981 as the initiative of two Registered Nurses who wanted to reduce the nursing shortage in New Mexico by training more nurses at the secondary school level.  Through this program, 16-year-old high school students in Albuquerque are able to complete their high school degrees and a degree in Licensed Practical Nursing at the same time, enabling them to practice as LPNs when the graduate from secondary school.  The students undergo a rigorous application process requiring testing, an interview and three reference letters.  Students must have taken Biology and two years of Mathematics, but they do not have to be academic stars.  As long as they have passed Biology and their prerequisite math courses with a C (average grade) and demonstrate the level of maturity, aptitude and motivation to complete the program, students are eligible for consideration.  Students attend 3 hours of nursing courses each school day in addition to their regular high school coursework, and participate in a professional practicum during their summer vacations.

                In the 30 years since its inception, 600 students have gone through the program to become LPNs when they graduate high school.  An interesting aspect of the program is that while students may not start out as academic stars, they become academic stars as a result of participation.  100% of the students graduating from the program passed the National Licensed Practical Nursing Board exam on the first try in 2009, 2010 and 2011.  Over 91% of the graduates go on to pursue higher education as well, becoming Registered Nurses, Physicians and Nurse Practitioners, attaining bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and Ph.D.s.  For example, Jocelyn Amberg, the program's director from 2007-2012), obtained a master's degree in nursing and has been a clinical instructor and lecturer at the University of New Mexico and in the APS LPN program since 1998.

                Not every high school or secondary school student has the maturity or desire to graduate high school as an LPN.  A one-year program after high school or later in life - as my mother pursued when she became a single mother with two children, thereafter pursuing an RN degree and a bachelor's degree - might suit others better.  The benefits of the Albuquerque Public Schools LPN program cannot be heralded enough, however.  In addition to personal and educational benefits for participants, the program has a huge impact on the quality of life of its graduates.  In a state as poor as New Mexico, these young graduates have the capacity to earn between $32,000.00 (€23,950.00) to $36,000.00 (€26,930.00) a year upon graduation from high school.  This entry level salary is just $5,000.00-$9,000.00 (€3,740.00- €6,730.00) below the average annual wage in Albuquerque, New Mexico - and it is being earned by high school graduates. Compare this to what these high school graduates would typically earn as entry level minimum wage employees in retail or a fast food restaurant at the U.S. national minimum wage of $7.25 (€5.42) per hour or $15,080.00 (€11,280.00) per year assuming 52 full weeks of employment in a year (which not all minimum wage workers are able to attain).  It is more than double that amount, and lifts these young people out of poverty before they are 20 years old.  These young LPNs also have the capability of paying for their post-secondary education out of their earnings rather than joining the millions in the United States who are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.  While most of the graduates of the program appear to be young women, these kinds of results and benefits could be made to be attractive to both young men and young women in secondary schools.

                Way to go, Albuquerque Public Schools and Career Center LPN Program co-founders Carol Johanson and Nina Adkins!  High schools and policy makers around the United States, in the European Union and elsewhere around the world need to follow your example and start coming up with practical ways to move more young people into the workforce with better skills at the get-go so they can start tackling the health care problems of the present and future.


Amberg, Joceyn, Connie Baker and Christina Cartright, "APS Career Enrichment Center Practical Nursing Center Program," Nursing News and Views, New Mexico Board of Nursing, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2012, pp. 8-9.


  1. Interesting- my high school (North Central High School) in Indianapolis had a similar program in the late 1970s, but I don't think it was as rigorous.

  2. I heard about the program over the holidays. My mom works with one of the graduates. What I love about the program is that the students don't have to be A students to qualify, but many of them go on to higher education. It's a great model for other kinds of programs - like what about a program like this for paralegals?