Creating ‘Career Pathways’ Health Care Initiative Is a Key Element in the Region’s Bid to ‘Build a Better Workforce’

As she talked about a new health care sector workforce development project set to commence, Jean Jackson used the phrase “career pathways” early and quite often.Creating such paths, said Jackson, vice president of Workforce Planning for Baystate Health, and providing inspiration for individuals to start or continue down them are the primary goals behind the initiative, part of the first phase of steps that will shape an ambitious, region-wide program known as Building a Better Workforce — Closing the Skills Gap on the Road to Economic Resurgence.

These first steps, outlined at an elaborate press conference last month that included local business leaders, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and state Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Suzanne Bump, were crafted to achieve some form of momentum with regard to the workforce plan’s four main strategic goals: establishing universal pre-kindergarten, improving youth education proficiency and career awareness, increasing adult literacy education services, and increasing technical training in ‘high growth/high-demand industry sectors.’

That last phrase accurately describes a number of positions in the health care sector today, said John McGlew, director of Employment and Employee Relations for the Sisters of Providence Health System. He noted that health care providers are currently challenged to fill positions in many specialties — from nursing to radiology to occupational therapy — and the situation will only worsen as the Baby Boom generation ages, thus taking individuals out of the workforce while also increasing the need for services across the board.

Improving the situation for health care providers across the region is at the heart of a project that will take a $475,000 grant from the state-supported Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund and use it to help clear some of those pathways for lower-skilled incumbent workers by providing certified nursing assistant (CNA) and acute care training.

It will bring the SPHS and Baystate together in a somewhat unusual but quite necessary partnership, said McGlew and Jackson, noting that colloboration is needed to create solutions for all area health care providers.

The health care component is one of four being addressed through a $1.25 million package of state grants, city funding, and contributions from area businesses that will be put toward the first phrase of Building a Better Workforce, which is aimed, said Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board, at “unplugging the pipeline of qualified workers.”

Other initiatives include:

  • Another career-pathways project, this one involving education and training in early childhood education, with a focus on helping women, minority, non-English speaking, and economically disadvantaged candidates;
  • Contributions from three area businesses — MassMutual, Big Y, and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. — totaling $150,000, to be put toward paid interships, year-round career education, and mentoring to 50 disadvantaged students; and
  • Efforts to improve adult basic education, to be funded by $100,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants.

But beyond achieving progress with primary goals and specific initiatives, this first round of programs was designed to get key players — from major employers to area colleges; from one-stop career centers to civic groups like the Urban League — actively involved in this workforce initiative and thus begin the process of creating the critical mass of support and imagination that it will take to generate real progress.

“We knew we needed to do something immediate and universal,” said Ward of the plan’s first phase, adding that, by doing so, he hopes to achieve needed momentum and a collective buy-in from participants. “We have to show that we’re doing more than worrying about the problem, that we’re making an impact. If we can do that, we can build some synergy, we can get people saying, ‘yes, we’re working together and we’re creating progress.’”

This month, The Healthcare News looks at the first steps in the process of building a better workforce, and how the healthcare component will hopefully help set a positive tone for this broad initiative.

The Jobs at Hand

As he talked about recent research conducted by the REB and a comparative analysis with Worcester and the state as a whole, Ward started by focusing on what he called an aberration.

It regards MCAS 2007 proficiency levels, and specifically third-grade reading; Springfield recorded 40{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, and Worcester, 33{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. “We looked at it, we corroborated it, it’s accurate, but it’s an aberration,” said Ward, noting that, in all other categories listed — from the percentage of people age 25 without a high school diploma to the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree of higher — Springfield lags well behind its neighbor to the east, and even further behind the state.

The numbers wouldn’t be quite so alarming if Springfield was an island, surrounded mostly, if not completely, by communities with much better numbers, said Ward, but the fact remains that it’s only a few miles from Holyoke, which is, statistically at least, the poorest community in the Commonwealth.

What the numbers clearly show is a skills gap, said Ward, adding this is evidenced by the fact that, in 2007, 21,000 Hampden County residents, roughly half from Springfield, looked for a job through the county’s two one-stop career centers — FutureWorks and Career Point — and fewer than half were able to find employment, this at a time when many employers were struggling to fill positions.

The process of closing the gap focuses on education, obviously, but also awareness of career opportunities and providing access, or pathways, to such opportunities, said Ward. These were some of the guiding principles behind Building a Better Workforce, a 28-page report that was completed several weeks ago, but only released when there was a commitment of at least $1 million to get started with programs toward addressing those four major goals and three specific objectives for each one.

Creating momentum with several of these objectives was a key part of the thought process in choosing projects with which to launch Building a Better Workforce, said Ward, noting that he and others wanted to engage the business community in the initiative and show that there would be some more-immediate gains as well as progress for the longer term.

The program involving Baystate and Mercy fits both categories, said McGlew, who noted that the situation is so dire that it is bringing long-time competitors together, in this case as business partners in the grant application submitted in the quest for WCTF funds, said McGlew. “This collaborative spirit is necessary, not just between Mercy and Baystate, but among health care providers across the region, because we share a common problem: an inadequate applicant flow of qualified people to put at the bedside.”

The initiative to expand the health care workforce in the region has a number of moving parts, said Jackson, noting that it will involve a diverse roster of players, including several colleges, the career centers, the Mass. Career Development Institute (MCDI), and groups like the Urban League.

It will start with 10 current workers — seven at Baystate and three at Mercy — currently in what would be described as entry-level or lower-level (unskilled) positions. These individuals, chosen on the basis of applications and a thorough interview process, would be paid their current salaries while they completed an intensive, eight-week training program to become certified nursing assistants, or CNAs. These are semi-skilled positions involving work that, as the name suggests, supports registered nurses in their daily regimens.

But the training regimen, involving Holyoke Community College, MCDI, and Springfield Technical Community College and its elaborate Patient Simulation Center, is designed to make participants ready to work in an acute care setting, said McGlew.

“The CNA program as its stands today prepares people to work in a nursing home — it doesn’t properly prepare them for the acute-care setting,” he explained. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with this program; we want to put people in the pipeline, but also augment standardized training so that they are prepared to go into the acute care setting immediately.”

In this capacity, individuals will be exposed to a number of health care specialties, from nursing to respiratory therapy; from diagnostic imaging to laboratory services, said McGlew, noting that health care providers across the region and across the state are struggling to fill vacancies in such areas.

“Obviously, getting into these areas requires additional schooling,” he continued. “But this program would provide people with that critical first step in moving forward with that process.”

The 10 current workers will be chosen within the next several weeks, and will probably begin CNA training early in 2009, said Jackson, adding that the program will also involve 45 “external” candidates, preferably representing minority communities, who will receive the same CNA training and the same exposure to other, more lucrative careers in health care.

“What we’re doing is putting people on a pathway,” she explained, adding that both internal and external candidates will gain confidence from the CNA training and work that results from it — a necessary commodity if they are then to consider and undertake a two-year college program needed to bring them further down the path and up the career ladder.

Hire Expectations

Summing up the first phase of initiatives within the Building a Better Workforce project, Ward described them collectively as “a small first step that cannot be viewed in light of what isn’t being done.”

By that, he meant that this all-important endeavor has to start somewhere, and it is starting with efforts, like the health care initiative, that are designed to get individuals and groups involved, generate some immediate results, and build momentum for subsequent stages.

“We hope these will serve as a catalyst to move our agendas forward,” he explained, adding that such catalytic agents are needed when a city is at what he called the “tipping point” — and could easily tip either way.