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Retraining Is Key Employment Strategy at Kaiser Permanente

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​Health care is one of the fastest-growing industries, and jobs in the field are projected to grow 15 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rapid growth—along with a tight labor market and rapidly changing technological advancements—is forcing some health care employers to double down on training and, in some instances, retrain workers for new careers where demand is expected to be the greatest.

SHRM Online freelance writer Rita Zeidner asked Monica Morris, senior director for national workforce planning and development at Kaiser Permanente—one of the nation's largest health care providers—about her how the health care giant is meeting unprecedented staffing and training challenges. Morris's responses, provided via e-mail, have been edited for length and clarity.

[Want to learn more about workforce planning? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

SHRM Online: Are there certain areas where the need for retraining is particularly great?
Morris: We're currently focused on enhancing skills for nursing and mental health professionals. These professions not only represent a significant percentage of our workforce, they're also undergoing a transformation in care delivery.

Nurses need to build skills as care coordinators, while licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are providing more direct care.

The demand for mental health professionals is rising, and virtual care is increasing. In addition to enhancing digital skills among existing mental health staff, we are aggressively recruiting more professionals in this specialty and ensuring digital literacy is part of their onboarding.  

Kaiser Permanente also started a new academic initiative, the Mental Health Scholars Academy, to address increased demand for mental health services and support California employees wanting to start or progress in mental health careers.
Overall, digital expertise is the top skill the workforce needs to enhance. Digital skills are becoming fundamental, from the rise in remote work to the increase in virtual visits. The workforce needs to be able to apply past experiences with technology to new technologies and to use different online tools with each other.

SHRM Online: How does Kaiser Permanente identify its future workforce needs?
Morris: It looks internally and externally:

  • Our Workforce of the Future initiative aims to prepare the workforce for tomorrow's jobs.
  • Workforce consultants and implementation specialists identify needs and analyze trends in each market and collaborate with labor and management to support lifelong learning and help employees get future-ready.
  • National Workforce Planning and Development coordinates the initiative with regional committees and our education trusts to identify needs, leverage resources and integrate efforts.

We have external partners who provide market intelligence, and we work with operations, IT and administrative leaders to learn how these trends will or won't be implemented at Kaiser Permanente. Many parts of the enterprise are involved in identifying the skills and support needed to implement these changes. It takes a village, from innovation and IT to performance improvement and human-centered design to learning and development, workforce planning and workforce development. 

SHRM Online: How do you identify which employees are appropriate for upskilling, and how do you get them the skills they need?
Morris: We build the training to fill the gap between an employee's current skills and what's needed for the next position. People are very motivated to learn if they know that what they're learning is critical to a higher position. Our aim is to provide "precision" learning, so employees learn what they need to succeed in the new position and continue to build a foundation in critical thinking, problem-solving and patient-centered care delivery:

  • Education trusts provide upskilling for nursing, allied health, and nonclinical workers who belong to Labor Management Partnership unions.
  • Career coaches help employees identify and achieve their academic and career goals, from continuing education and skills enhancement to certification and degree programs.
  • Tailored team trainings and apprenticeships across our regions address priority needs. These involve extensive collaboration between labor and management. The apprenticeships attract a lot of interest and are highly competitive. 

SHRM Online: What kind of partnerships are you forming with other organizations?
Morris: We partner with everyone we can. Collaborations help to solve today's workforce challenges:

  • Our National Workforce Planning and Development team was created through collective bargaining between Kaiser Permanente and partnership unions. Most of our initiatives and projects are co-led by labor and management.
  • We have a regional workforce development infrastructure governed by labor and management leaders. The California Hospital Association is a critical partner in planning training, and other partners include nonprofits focused on the future of work and digital fluency.
  • On the academic side, most of our partners are four-year universities and colleges and professional societies. Community colleges provide adult education, and a member of our team sits on an advisory board for the California Community Colleges. The education trusts have established strong partnerships with colleges to provide education that meets our workforce needs.
  • The government is a key partner at the state and federal levels. Their funding and support for licensure, policy and training can make a big impact in building the workforce of the future.  

SHRM Online: What kind of incentives are you offering current and future employees to receive the training you need?
Morris: Kaiser Permanente provides employees with up to $3,000 annually for completing courses to continue their education, earn a certificate or degree. Our Mental Health Scholars Academy, Nurse Scholars Academy and education trusts support continuing education or help employees go back to school to get their degrees. Stipends are another key tool. With the manager's approval, eligible employees receive a wage-replacement stipend of up to 16 hours each pay period to study and/or attend classes.

We're also partnering on apprenticeships, which combine paid on-the-job learning with classroom instruction to prepare workers for high-skilled careers. Some of the most well-received programs offer a hybrid of online and in-person learning.  

SHRM Online: Tell us about the investment you are making to upskill workers.
Morris: It is investing in upskilling the broader workforce. Kaiser Permanente and Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West established a $130 million nonprofit, Futuro Health, to address California's health care worker shortage. Futuro Health is an education-to-work model that delivers an agile and inclusive workforce development solution to allied health care workers. It focuses on positions such as medical assistants, radiologic technicians and community health workers. The goal is to grow the nation's largest network of health care workers at little or no cost to participants.

SHRM Online: What successes have you had so far, and what lessons have been learned?
Morris: Our education trusts had record usage by employees in 2020. The overall participation in our three Labor Management Partnership-supported education trusts is around 30 percent, the highest in the health care industry as well as for other industry labor-management education funds.

The most important lesson is that people can learn anything. It's up to the educators to create the best way for a group to learn and to support them. It's also critical to show the value of learning. Lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important and needs the financial support of organizations, which have many competing priorities.  


Rita Zeidner is a freelance journalist based in Arlington, Va.


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