Some Textbook Examples In An Era Of Staff Shortages, Continuing Education Is A Way Of Life

College graduation, for most Amer-icans, is a time to move from higher education into the world of work. But for many, including an increasing number in health care, it’s a chance to advance an already established career.
And, at a time when hospitals, nursing homes, and other health facilities are struggling to find skilled employees, it makes sense for these institutions to support the continuing education efforts of their workers.

“Career movement and professional development is something people are always interested in, and we support them,” said Sharron Gasior, vice president of Human Resources at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

And, like many hospitals, that institution is supporting staff education through programs ranging from tuition reimbursement and salaried class time to paid seminars and conferences. Simply put, with hospitals across Massachusetts grappling with staff shortages, it makes sense to administrators to support career ad-vancement from within.

This month, The Healthcare News takes a look at a few of the ways nurses, technicians, and other health care workers are moving up career ladders — with the help of their employers.

Back to School

Holyoke Hospital has felt the strain of the nursing crunch and other regional shortages of health care workers as much as any other facility. But because continuing education has always been a priority, the hospital isn’t doing anything different these days — existing education programs have simply become more important.
As examples, the hospital offers up to $1,000 per year to attend a college class, workshop, seminar, or program that advances a worker toward a degree. “We’ve always encouraged them to use that,” said Ann Barrett, Human Resources administrator.

An extensive education and training department helps the hospital’s employees obtain necessary certifications in-house when possible. But it’s common at Holyoke to send employees off-site for training in radiology, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, and a host of other areas — not just to obtain minimum certifications, but also to shift gears in their careers.

“In our medical-surgical unit, if an RN has an interest in the birthing center, we’ve trained them here, and we’ve also sent them over to UMass for more experience with birthing,” Barrett said. She added that she has had RNs move into supervisory roles in nurse management with the help of additional education.

Mercy Medical Center has traditionally reimbursed 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of tuition for its employees, but since the other 25{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} is still a burden for some, the hospital is making changes to pick up the entire tab. Mercy has also introduced a forgivable loan program to go beyond tuition, paying its workers for their time in school, with the understanding that the hospital will be rewarded with at least two to three years of full-time work after degree completion.

“It’s a way to give extra assistance,” said Leonard Pansa, vice president for Human Resources. “Tuition reimbursement works for most of our staff, and works well. But for someone with a limited budget pursuing a degree, it might not meet all their needs. This allows them time to be away from the workplace and study.”
Cooley Dickinson also places value on additional education. Depending on how long one has been an employee, the hospital will reimburse between $1,000 and $3,000 per year for a college class or degree program.

In addition, a new partnership with the UMass School of Nursing allows nurses with two-year diplomas to earn bachelor’s degrees for free — including tuition, fees, and books. If a nurse must have a day off for classes during the week, the hospital pays his or her salary as well.

Just as importantly, Gasior said, employees and department managers are queried as to what in-house and outside training programs they need to keep current, and the hospital pays for those as well.

“They determine what the needs are — for instance, if there’s a new piece of equipment, new policies or procedures, or issues that are pertinent to that area,” she said. For example, an annual conference in oncology issues has proven helpful to various departments, so the hospital pays for the program and the cost of travel.
“We’ve always had some departments more inclined to do these things than others,” Gasior said, “but we’ve been educating all the departments, and we’ve increased the budget for these programs every year.”

In-home Learning

Hospitals aren’t the only venue for continuing education in health care. Long-term care facilities are taking big strides into that arena with the state’s help, through the Extended Care Career Ladder Initiative (ECCLI). That program, which is entering its second year of state funding, helps nursing homes provide career ladder development and training for workers.

According to Ira Schoenberger, administrator of Heritage Hall East in Agawam, which received an ECCLI grant last year, forming partnerships with area community colleges to offer courses on the nursing home campus has helped the facility fill staffing needs.

“There is such a need for nurses,” Schoenberger told The Healthcare News. “Here, we’re grooming our own staff to have the career skills necessary to take on other positions around the campus.” The numbers seem to bear out that perception, as retention and staff turnover costs have been cut in half at Heritage Hall since the program was implemented.

At hospitals as well as nursing homes, administrators are keeping their eyes on educational opportunities to provide employee incentives, raise skill levels, and, perhaps most importantly, reduce turnover and its corresponding costs.

“We’ve always liked to kind of grow our own,” Barrett said. “Because we’re a community hospital, we often get new graduates, so it works well for us to invest in them and keep them with us, so they advance their careers here. There are a lot of areas they can branch out into.”

“The programs are essential to keep people advancing from within,” Pansa echoed. “We want to retain our staff, reduce turnover, and keep those people working even while in school.

“We want to remove the barriers for people to pursue their continuing education within the organization,” he concluded. “It’s better to have them working here part-time than to have them leave completely.”

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