Connecticut will invest $35 million in a three-year program to bolster the ranks of nurses and mental health providers by funding tuition assistance for some students and efforts to recruit and retain faculty to teach them, the governor announced Wednesday. 

Gov. Ned Lamont and state academic officials outlined the federally funded CT Health Horizons program during a televised press conference on the Southern Connecticut State University campus in New Haven. Lamont appealed to students considering careers in nursing or social work, areas where existing staffing shortages were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“They are jobs for you right now. We need you desperately,” Lamont said. “We’ll provide the training you need, we’ll provide the skills and I think, assuming you pass muster, there’s a guaranteed job at the end of that.”

The program is expected to fund tuition support to incentivize 1,200 low-income and minority applicants to participate in accelerated training programs for jobs in the social work and nursing fields. Meanwhile, the initiative’s faculty recruitment support is designed to ensure enough seat capacity in those training programs.

Kelli-Marie Vallieres, executive director of the state Office of Workforce Strategy, said that demand for medical and behavioral health professionals has far outpaced the number of applicants in Connecticut. The problem has been compounded by a shortage of available seats in academic programs, she said. 

“In 2021, Connecticut nursing schools received 12,000 applications for less than 3,000 slots available for them to fill,” Vallieres said. “The bottleneck goes beyond the classroom and it trickles into the valuable field experience in our clinicals across the state.”

Beth Beckman, chief nursing executive at Yale New Haven Health, said the sector had already been experiencing “daunting” workforce shortages prior to the pandemic.

“We knew that we would have more needs. Then came COVID,” Beckman said. “COVID took all the wind out of all our sails of preparation because it was like nothing we had ever seen.”

Beckman said many nurses migrated from demanding, high-acuity positions to lower-stress positions based on an increase in fatigue, despair, and post-traumatic stress brought on by pandemic-related conditions. She said the state could not afford to train only one in four nursing applicants. 

“That’s a problem that we have to get out of the way. We need each and every one of those qualified nursing students to help us solve our community health care needs,” Beckman said.

The recently-adopted state budget package dedicated the American Rescue Plan Act funds to the program, which will be overseen by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, according to a press release from Lamont’s office.