Health Care Organizations Invest in the Front Line to Help the Bottom Line

By Dawn Onley Dec 15, 2016

Health care employers are developing the skill sets of their front-line workforce to boost workers' career options and fill anticipated labor shortages.

A sharp increase in people covered under the Affordable Care Act and an aging workforce progressively nearing retirement have driven the health care industry to the brink of change.

A beneficiary of this change could be the industry's rank-and-file workforce—including cooks, cleaning staff, receptionists, maintenance crews and supply technicians.

"The health care industry faces market disruption, growing consumer expectations and a changing workforce in the foreseeable future," said Kelly Aiken, a Boston-based workforce development leader and director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions' CareerSTAT initiative. CareerSTAT is a national network of health care organizations that promote investment in the skills and careers of front-line workers.

"In order to proactively address these issues, health care organizations must develop a resilient, competent and engaged workforce," Aiken said. "As a national network of health care leaders, we know that investments in the skills and careers of front-line workers help employees grow and businesses succeed." If organizations are serious about being able to compete, "they must equip their employees with the skills to succeed."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

In October, CareerSTAT published the Guide to Investing in Frontline Health Care Workers. It offers a framework for health care leaders to integrate workforce development programs to get the most benefits for business and provides resources to help steer employers to success.

Some organizations say the guidance is yielding good results.

Joyce McDanel, vice president of human resources and education at UnityPoint Health—Des Moines, a provider of clinic, hospital and home-based care for patients in Des Moines and other parts of central Iowa, credited CareerSTAT with helping her company structure some of its original programs.

"What impressed me was the ability to articulate how this is the right thing for our employees but also the right thing to do for our community," McDanel said. "We are helping entry-level individuals in these positions access some of the benefits we already offered, such as tuition assistance and reimbursement, but the individuals in these entry-level positions are not the ones who traditionally access these types of programs."

The focus on front-line workers is important for a few reasons. Talent leaders say it's a way to begin investing in their organizations now to address future shortages caused by the aging workforce. They also say it's the right thing to do because many of the front-line positions are low wage, making it tough for families to get by. Ultimately, by investing in these front-line workers through career enhancement programs, it improves their likelihood for advancement.

Functioning as a self-described "career coach" at UnityPoint Health—Des Moines, HR business partner and retention specialist Emily Brown is particularly proud of the programs her company offers to help aging front-line employees. With UnityPoint's rehoming program, Baby Boomer workers readying for retirement can request to be put in a different department doing less-strenuous work. Brown said the employee must first shadow the job to see if it's a fit before he or she can be reassigned. UnityPoint also helps front-line employees with career development, which includes everything from resume writing to job flexibility options and support enrolling in college.

Tony Bohn, system vice president of human resources and chief human resources officer for Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Ky., said education has played a huge role in helping Norton's front-line workforce advance to higher-paying positions. Last year under the Norton Scholars Program, nearly 400 employees graduated from college, 60 percent of whom were front-line employees, Bohn said. Norton employs 14,000 workers in all.

Alexis Owens joined Norton Healthcare in 2011 as a medical receptionist. She enrolled in a nursing program at a community college, which was funded by a federal match grant that Norton Healthcare obtained. Owens earned her associate degree in nursing and is now a registered nurse in the oncology intensive care unit at Norton Hospital. In January, Owens will attend the University of Kentucky with her sights on becoming a primary care nurse practitioner.

"All of this fits into a culture of lifelong learning," Bohn said. "We have programs that support this culture. We do this because it's the right thing to do not only for our organization, but for our community, and it really is a part of our culture and strategy."

Jackie Beard, system director, talent acquisition and workforce development at Norton Healthcare, explained that the workforce development strategy is to be proactive in collecting and reviewing data by using a data analysis program that Norton built in-house to foresee potential staffing challenges and make plans to address them, instead of reacting in crisis mode.

"I think it really is a holistic program from a data perspective," Beard said. "The forecasting tool was certainly a great place for us to start. Now we have data that tells us what direction we need to go. We can reallocate funds. We can look at a unit to see where an age cliff is forming, we can see a drop off, and that allows us to make sure we put enough new graduates or internal transfers within those units."

Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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