Do It Yourself Berkshire Healthcare Builds a Nursing Workforce from Within

One of the greatest challenges in long-term care today is staffing — and it should be no surprise that the greatest challenge is in nursing.

It’s a well-known fact that the health care system is struggling with a nationwide nursing shortage. The reasons are many — more career options now for women, a plethora of non-clinical career paths for nurses, the aging and retirement of the existing nursing pool, an increase in the over-65 population and a resulting increased demand for nursing services, and the shortage of clinical nursing instructors, which limits the number of new nurses who can be graduated from college programs each year.

The need may be most acutely felt in long-term care, said Michael Kachadoorian, vice president of Marketing for Berkshire Healthcare, which operates 16 skilled nursing homes throughout Massachusetts. “That’s not surprising,” he said, “because nurses, when they’re portrayed on television or in the media, are most often shown working in a hospital. So those students considering nursing as a career become oriented toward practice in an acute-care setting, often overlooking the rewarding opportunities in home care and long-term care.”

So Berkshire Healthcare took matters into its own hands. The system has rolled out several workforce development programs this year, each designed to provide education, training, and career advancement to nurses, future nurses, and other long-term care employees. These programs all focus on removing financial and educational barriers to rewarding careers in nursing and long-term care.

In short, Berkshire Healthcare isn’t waiting for the nursing crunch to improve, but meeting it head-on instead.

Back to School

Earlier this year, Kachadoorian said, Berkshire Healthcare formed a health care alliance with several other long-term care companies and applied as a group for grant money to help fund nursing training for their qualified employees. The first group of future nurses — most of whom are currently certified nursing assistants or dietary aides — have already begun working toward LPN certification.

The program was designed with working adults, particularly single mothers, in mind. The program runs for two years, when typical LPN programs are completed in 10 months, so that participants can continue to work 24 hours a week, study, and have time and money to support a household. “The two-year time frame also takes some of the pressure off of the working participants,” Kachadoorian said. “This is helpful not only for working mothers but also for others who have been away from an academic setting for a while.”

The grant covers 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of tuition and book costs at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Mass. As a requirement of the grant, the facilities must pay each participant six hours of leave time each week as an in-kind match, continue each participant’s employee health insurance benefits, and cover shifts when each participant is on leave time.

“We expect that the program will expand in the future, offering more career-development opportunities for highly motivated individuals who have already committed to the field of long-term care,” Kachadoorian said. “This is unique because it not only removes the financial barrier to advancement but also addresses the time crunch felt by many of the most promising candidates — working adults with family obligations who are returning to school.

Marla Hill is a good example. Twenty years ago, she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She was six years out of high school, had a young daughter, yet planned to enroll in an LPN program.

Then, the unthinkable happened: her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. So Hill gave up her professional nursing dreams to care for her child. Time passed, and Hill had a second daughter, now 15. Over the years, however, Hill was marginally employable, because she devoted so much time to her sick child. Sadly, her firstborn daughter died in 2000 at age 14.

Hill eventually found full-time work as a certified nurses’ assistant at Hunt Nursing and Retirement Home in Danvers. When the grant program was announced, Hill applied. Berkshire Healthcare personnel helped prepare her for the rigors of college-level study, and she passed the entrance exam. Today, Hill works two 12-hour days per week, attends nursing classes, and manages to fit in both study time and quality time with her surviving daughter.

“It’s given me the opportunity I’ve always wanted,” Hill said. “Hunt has been very supportive with my schedule and hours, and I’m determined to do well.”

Removing Barriers

Another Berkshire Healthcare initiative, dubbed the Stepping Stones program, also removes financial barriers that often inhibit career growth in the nursing field. It covers 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of tuition, books, and uniforms up front, based upon program costs at the participant’s local community or state college.

In return for this educational opportunity and financial assistance, Stepping Stones participants must agree that, after receiving their new nursing credentials, they will work in that capacity at a Berkshire Healthcare facility at least 24 hours a week for two years, at the appropriate salary for the position. The agency currently boasts 35 program participants across the state.

There are several key differences between Stepping Stones and the grant program. First, Stepping Stones applies to a wider range of nursing pursuits. Funding is available for LPN certificate programs, associate’s degree programs to become an RN, and bachelor’s degrees in nursing (BSNs). Second, participants identify and enroll in a nursing program of their own choosing.

“Stepping Stones will be tremendous for our ability to recruit and retain staff,” said Tricia Bragdon, Berkshire Healthcare’s vice president of Talent Management.

Of course, licensed nurses aren’t the only nursing staff in demand. Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) also play a key role in delivering care to residents. While most nursing homes recruit CNAs out of programs at community colleges, Linda Manor Extended Care Facility in Leeds held its own, four-week CNA training class this fall, graduating eight certified assistants in November.

“The CNA training program attracted a diverse and dedicated group of women,” Kachadoorian said. “We believe this will translate into exceptional teamwork. Fortunately, we’ll be able to test that belief; all eight graduates have chosen to continue employment at Linda Manor.”

Then there’s Berkshire Healthcare’s Educational Assistance program, available to any employee in any department who is looking for professional growth opportunities that will expand his or her career horizons. The program covers tuition and books up to $2,500 per employee each calendar year.

“Any number of academic pursuits might be approved through the Educational Assistance program,” Bragdon said. “An office worker might want to take a computer course to upgrade skills. A department head might go after an MBA. Another employee might enroll in a high-level English-as-a-second-language class at the local community college. A human resources manager might seek HR certification. Or an activities director might choose to work toward a bachelor’s degree in human services, which could help her provide better care under the new activities regulations.”

“If it makes sense for the employee, the facility, and the company, it’ll be considered,” she added.

Partners for the Future

Berkshire Healthcare has even made an investment in its community, investing $200,000 over the next several years to fund the Allied Health program in the Pittsfield Public Schools. The program, which exposes students to career opportunities in health care, was in danger of being cut.

“We believe that with our non-profit status comes a responsibility to provide the community with something of value,” Kachadoorian said. “Investing in this program has given us a new opportunity to give back to the greater Pittsfield community in the form of a well-trained, entry-level nursing workforce, and to provide an educational opportunity for area students that would no longer have been available to them — an opportunity that can lead to a very rewarding career.”

And if that career begins at Berkshire Healthcare, then the investment, like the system’s other career-development efforts, will have paid off in more ways than one.

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