Saint Joseph’s College has received a $1.5 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to support the creation of a new academic center in Standish to address critical shortages in Maine’s nursing workforce.

According to the foundation, the number of Maine nurses on the verge of retirement is up significantly, with nearly three-fourths nearing retirement age.

Meanwhile, demand for home health care, nursing home and hospital workers in Maine is expected to surge through 2024, and industry leaders say they already are facing worker shortages ranging from entry-level caretakers to top administrators.

A Maine Department of Labor report issued in September anticipates a need for at least 3,700 more workers in ambulatory health care services, 2,300 in hospitals and 1,900 in nursing and residential care facilities by 2024.

In partnership with the lead investment from the Alfond Foundation, the Saint Joseph’s College Center for Nursing Excellence will respond directly to those needs, the foundation said Tuesday. The grant provides critical funding for expanded nursing simulation labs that will be the cornerstone of the new academic center. Nursing simulation labs are designed to give students hands-on clinical experience through simulated interactions in areas of medicine such as intensive care, pediatrics and maternity. The college intends to use the grant to raise an additional $3.5 million to fully fund the program’s expansion.

“The college has been doing a lot in terms of growth, and the Alfond Foundation donation is an endorsement of the strategic direction Saint Joseph’s has been moving in,” said college President James Dlugos, who described the grant as a “momentous event” and the most generous in the college’s history.

In particular, the grant will allow the college to respond to significant challenges confronting nursing students, such as the lack of clinical placements. Those opportunities have dried up as hospital administrators increasingly worry about insurance and liability costs associated with student placements. By increasing the number of simulation labs, nursing students will be “better grounded” with hands-on experience, he said.

The college has 300 nursing students on campus and another 900 or so in its online nursing program.

Dlugos said the college prides itself on devising its curriculum to respond to the state’s needs, which is why it focuses on health care, sustainable agriculture and sustainable hospitality programs.

“This is the place we find ourselves,” he said.

There are seven colleges in Maine where a student can earn an associate degree in nursing and another seven where baccalaureate degrees are awarded. Besides Saint Joseph’s, advanced nursing degrees are available at the University of Maine, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Southern Maine, the University of New England, Husson University and Kaplan University, according to the state licensing board.

EXPANDED OFFERINGS

The Alfond gift was announced at a campuswide gathering Tuesday morning, with state and congressional officials offering their congratulations. U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was joined by Jeanne Paquette, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, who noted that Maine’s aging population means the need to provide health care services for seniors will continue to grow.

“It is critical that we support in-state programs such as the Center for Nursing Excellence at Saint Joseph’s College to ensure that we have a strong, growing, well-trained workforce to meet these needs,” she said in a statement.

Dlugos said the donation will benefit the entire campus, because the Center for Nursing Excellence project involves renovating Mercy Hall, “one of the cornerstones of our campus and academic community.” It is expected to provide additional resources to enroll another two dozen nursing students at the outset and then grow from there.

The project includes:

• Expansion of the college’s longstanding on-campus and online nursing education program from BSN and MSN degrees to include Doctor of Nursing Practice and Acute Care Nurse Practitioner programs.

• Expansion to five nursing simulation labs (with hospital and home-care settings).

• Renovation and enhancement of anatomy, physiology and microbiology labs used by nursing majors.

• Expansion of nursing scholarship opportunities for Maine students, especially for those coming from communities underserved by health care.

• Creation of a Nursing Advising and Collaborative Learning Center, an entire floor dedicated to students’ needs, including advising offices, a conference room and a collaborative learning space.

Dlugos said he was especially pleased that $1 million has been designated as scholarship aid to help Maine students with tuition costs. But beyond helping students, the gift also address shortages in nursing faculty, another area where an aging workforce has meant challenges.

“We look at this as ensuring a pipeline for nursing education well into the future,” he said. “It’s a sustainable approach because we are addressing more than one issue.”

Greg Powell, chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation and president and CEO of Dexter Enterprises Inc., presented the gift, saying he was confident that it would “further strengthen Maine’s workforce of nurses, who are so critical to quality health care.”

Business Editor Carol Coultas contributed to this report.