Inside 2 health system apprenticeship programs tackling workforce shortages

Kora Irby has served as a culinary apprentice at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., since the program launched this summer, and attributes the experience to helping her realize her dream of becoming a chef.

"I like the stability of the program," she said in a news release shared with Becker's. "And I get to learn new things at work while attending school. I apply the knowledge learned in class on the job."

Ms. Irby is among workers across the U.S. who are part of apprenticeships at hospitals and health systems.

Healthcare organizations have always had to ensure they recruit and retain enough qualified staff to meet patient care demand. However, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this need even more, particularly as workers have left their jobs for a variety of reasons. Now, more hospitals and health systems are considering or expanding apprenticeship programs to address workforce challenges.

Some apprenticeships have involved partnering with local colleges as well as sponsorships from states.

Rush University System for Health

Take Chicago-based Rush University System for Health, which has partnered with Palatine, Ill.-based Harper College to develop a paid apprenticeship for future medical assistants. The 16-month program trains participants to become medical assistants through on-the-job learning at Rush's medical facilities and accompanying Harper College instruction. Rush covers educational costs (tuition, fees and books) while paying apprentices' salaries.

Once participants complete the program, they may take a certification exam and begin employment with Rush as a medical assistant.

Molly Moran, director of ambulatory clinical practice at Rush University Medical Center, told Becker's the goal is to ensure Rush has a guaranteed pipeline in this position.

"The need for medical assistants has increased exponentially over the past several years, and a lot of that is due in part to a shift from patient care occurring on traditional inpatient units to a shift in ambulatory care," she said. Also, "medical assistants, when you're looking at the flow and function of a clinic, really are an integral part of the healthcare team. They are trained both to perform clinical as well as administrative tasks. And so, they can provide a huge resource and a wealth of information and support to patient care operations."

Rush initially began discussions about a medical assistant apprenticeship program in September 2021.

Among individuals who were part of Rush's pipeline programs at the time, there was an interest to become a certified medical assistant, Ms. Moran said. However, there were challenges they faced in terms of working and going to school.

"Many of the students either had families of their own to support or were working to support a part of a multigenerational family, or just had a work schedule that didn't lend themselves nicely to completion of those clinical hours," she said. "It really took looking at what our state programs were and what our current students coming out of school were telling us, and to go back to the drawing board. And that's really when we began to consider apprenticeship, which is unique in healthcare as an opportunity for growth and advancement."

When Rush officially launched the application process, more than 3,000 people completed the interest form for the apprenticeship program in the first 30 days. That translated to more than 500 applicants.

There were a limited number of positions available with the program due to the number of available medical assistant faculty members. Ultimately, a 22-member cohort began the apprenticeship program in August.

"Their energy day one was infectious," Ms. Moran said. "There was a lot of excitement around the program. And as we went around the room, talking about what brought them to the program, there were a lot of stories that resonated with the themes that we had heard from those medical assistants who are soon to be graduating. We have one apprentice, who is a mom, and who had said, financially, going back to school was not feasible for her family. And so, this really provided an opportunity for her to do that. We have others who either grew up on the West Side of Chicago and saw this as a way to give back to their community and to care for those with whom they had grown up."

Now, weeks into the program, Ms. Moran said "that excitement is still there, and in rounding with our apprentices, talking with the leaders, there is a level of investment of the employee into the program."

Advocate Aurora Health

Apprenticeship programs are going beyond the medical assistant position.

Advocate Aurora Health, which has dual headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill., and Milwaukee, said it has partnered with Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute in Chicago to launch a culinary apprenticeship program in several of its Chicago-area hospitals.

The program, which is registered with the Illinois Department of Labor, offers paid on-the-job training at a hospital and instruction at Washburne over the next three years, according to a news release the health system shared with Becker's.

Apprentices who complete the program will be offered a promotion to full-time cook roles within Advocate Aurora Health.

"The program is a win-win for us," Rebecca Balinnang, director of food and nutrition, said in the release. "Apprentices earn money while learning their craft and attending school, and our organization fills roles where we're experiencing shortages."

During the three-year program, each participant will complete 6,000 hours of on-the-job training with their designated hospital: Advocate Christ Medical Center, Advocate South Suburban Hospital, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center or Advocate Trinity Hospital. Simultaneously, they will complete about 471 hours of classroom learning at Washburne. Apprentices are paid for their training and education.

Advocate Aurora Health said its workforce development team previously implemented successful registered apprenticeships for culinary and facilities training in Wisconsin and is excited to expand culinary opportunities to Illinois. The organization also said it intends to continue adding more disciplines to the registered apprenticeship programs across both states moving forward.

"These programs are proving successful throughout the organization, and we're pleased to expand it to our hospital kitchens," Jerry Baake, manager of workforce development, said in the news release.

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