Program Helps Train Entry-Level Workers for Critical Positions

By Adrienne Fox Feb 1, 2008
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The health care industry is facing a daunting demographics challenge. The U.S. population is aging, boosting the demand for health care, while the supply of qualified medical professionals is dwindling.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the over-age 65 population will nearly triple from 36 million in 2004 to almost 90 million by 2050. As the population ages, so too do clinical staff whose average age is 45 and climbing.

The health care labor market is already in crisis mode. According to the 2007 Survey of Hospital Leaders by the American Hospital Association (AHA), hospitals reported 116,000 registered nurse vacancies as of December 2006. Nearly half said vacancies in all health care positions affected their hospital’s ability to care for patients.

The number of medical school graduates grew very little from 73,000 graduates in 1987 to 79,000 in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services. The Lewin Group, a health care services firm in Falls Church, Va., estimates that the shortage of full-time nursing professionals, including nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, will be 500,000 by 2020, according to Tim Dall, vice president of Lewin.

“We are facing a critical shortage in all medical professions, and the situation will steadily worsen,” said Debra Stock, vice president of member relations at AHA in Chicago.

Instead of competing for a shrinking labor supply, some medical centers are taking matters into their own hands by using industry-specific development programs to grow talent from within.

CHOP Brings School to Work

In 2006, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia(CHOP)—a 10,000-employee medical center—partnered with Catalyst Learning in Louisville, Ky., to implement the training firm’s School-at-Work (SAW) program. Specifically designed for the health care industry, SAW produces various training modules for entry-level workers as well as more advanced programs for managers.

The program costs $650 per student, but because of the civic need for qualified medical staff, many hospitals are able to secure grant money. CHOP so far has received grants from the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board and Life Sciences Career Alliance, a public-private partnership to boost the health care workforce in the Delaware Valley.

Tracy Mack, professional development consultant, said CHOP needed a program like SAW to unclog the congestion it experiences at the entry level—in the clinical, clerical and support roles—with people who have potential but may lack certain skills necessary to move ahead.

“Our entry-level positions are excellent, and some of our people who have talent get comfortable and stagnant,” said Mack, adding that the hospital has many training programs available but none focused on entry-level workers gaining skills to move up.

The eight-month SAW program is taught over two semesters divided into two courses: “Introduction to Healthcare” and “Becoming a Healthcare Professional.” The program uses a blended learning approach of web-based, DVD and computer learning and face-to-face instruction by trainers. Each course contains eight modules that are designed to help employees develop computer, math, reading and interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and communication.

Program participants and coaches ‘are assigned a client relations manager

who is their point of contact before, during and after the session.’

In the second semester, students study topics such as medical terminology, anatomy and medical ethics. Hospitals can customize coursework to meet additional needs. A career and learning plan (CLP) is created for each participant and monitored throughout the program. The CLP prepares students for college enrollment and job advancements.

At CHOP, participants committed to two-hour weekly classes on hospital-paid time. The pilot program enrolled 10 CHOP employees, nominated by their managers for their top performance and leadership abilities. Eligibility requirements included one-year tenure for full-time employees or two years for part time, as well as clean disciplinary and performance records. Catalyst Learning requires at least a ninth-grade reading level.

Mack conducted personal interviews to ensure the candidates would commit to attending all the classes, completing the homework and continuing to perform in their jobs at a high level.

CHOP Employees See the Path

Anthony Ross couldn’t have imagined going to HR or his manager to find out how he could turn his job as a linen and services staff person in the environmental services department into a career. That is, until he was encouraged to participate in the SAW pilot program by a co-worker who saw the potential he didn’t see in himself. Although he said it was a tough program, as a recent graduate, he has no regrets. “Now, I look at my job as a career,” said Ross. “Before, it was just a paycheck. I see a future at CHOP and appreciate all they have given me.”

Ross credits the support of coach Mack, his manager and the other SAW students with keeping him motivated to finish. “We were all in this together,” Ross said of the other students from around the hospital. “I can call on them anytime I need something.”

Now, other leaders call on Ross to make quality improvements. The program “gave me the confidence to speak up and make suggestions about improving the ED [emergency department],” said Ross.

Fear and lack of confidence were the two things holding back Vivian Davis from moving ahead. “The program gave me a lot of confidence in myself and gave me encouragement to excel,” said Davis, a billing analyst who has worked at CHOP for five years. Davis’ future now looks bright as she considers local colleges at which to pursue her bachelor’s degree.

At press time, eight of the 10 pilot program graduates had been accepted to or are enrolling in higher education programs in fields such as respiratory therapy, medical coding, health care administration and nursing. Two participants were promoted upon completion of the SAW program.

Support Networks

It’s not always a smooth road when implementing a training program, but coaches and participants can turn to the network Catalyst Learning provides. “Each coach is assigned a client relations manager who is their point of contact before, during and after the session,” said Lynn Fischer, founder and CEO of Catalyst Learning. “There are also several electronic message boards for both coaches and students.”

CHOP was scheduled to hold another SAW program in late 2007 for entry-level workers. But, it also received grant money to buy an advanced program for mid-level staff. Eventually, Mack would like to let each division run its own SAW program with support from the HR team.

Adrienne Fox, a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., is former managing editor of HR Magazine.

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