Northwell leans on externs for nurse hiring pipeline

Nursing is a family affair for Maureen Kenney, MSN, and her 26-year-old twin daughters, Emily Kenney, BSN, RN, and Elizabeth Kenney, BSN, RN. 

As a nurse manager at Northwell Health's Huntington (N.Y.) Hospital, Maureen is witnessing her daughters follow her path by becoming nurses after training as externs while in nursing school. Emily is working the night shift as an intensive care unit nurse at Huntington, while Elizabeth is pursuing her nurse practitioner's license and practicing at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York City, also part of New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell.

Emily and Elizabeth told Becker's they are inspired by their mother's work.

"My sister and I always wanted to be a nurse like mom. When we were in high school, actually, both of us did a junior volunteer program in Huntington Hospital. So even as teenagers, we were exposed to healthcare and what our mom did," Emily said.

Elizabeth added that their mom showed a passion for nursing, even on rough days, which contributed to her own interest in nursing. 

"I am interested in the medical aspects of nursing," Elizabeth said. "And then when we heard that Huntington offered the extern program, we thought that it would be a great way to see nursing firsthand at the bedside."

Northwell's externship program, which has been in place for three decades, allows junior-level nursing students to be hired, receive experience and be compensated. Participants train and work alongside Northwell nurses while receiving broad exposure to multiple clinical departments, according to hospital leaders and the Kenneys. Northwell, a 23-hospital system, said externs help current nurses by performing various tasks. 

The summer nurse externship program provides an eight-week paid preceptorship for junior bachelor's of science in nursing students. Some hospitals also stay connected to students during the rest of the school year and have them return to work in a nursing support role during their vacations.

All but three of the health system's hospitals participate in the externship program, with more than 100 nurse externs completing the summer program in 2021; of those, 62 percent converted to permanent nursing positions within Northwell. 

Emily and Elizabeth said they gained valuable experience through the program, and their mom said she is pleased her daughters had the opportunity to participate.

As hospitals and health systems continue to grapple with workforce shortages, it is crucial that they have the best recruitment and retention strategies available to win top talent. Northwell views the externship program as a way to create its own nurse hiring pipeline.

"It's a wonderful experience for nursing students to get a hands-on, day-to-day reality of what nurses do based on getting to work with some co-workers, whether they be on the unit, the nurses, the nursing assistants, secretaries, the doctors," Maureen said. "It's a little different than what they get while they're in nursing school, and it gives them the opportunity to see what areas they would like to go into."

For Emily, that area ended up being the ICU.

During the externship, "I'd be floated to the ICU at Huntington here and there. And when I worked there, I loved it and I could speak to the nursing supervisors and request [to] float over to the ICU," Emily said.

Elizabeth said her journey eventually led her to pediatrics, and she particularly was pleased she was able to come home during her school breaks and continue working as an extern. 

"It was nice to be able to still come home and learn things at nursing school and different skills and then come back to work at Huntington and be able to apply what I've learned or see firsthand what I've been learning throughout school," she said.

Emily is a graduate of State University of New York at Plattsburgh, while Elizabeth is a graduate of Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y.

Now that they have completed the externship program, they are able to pass along their experiences to other externs. 

Kathleen Casler, RN, senior director of clinical professional development at Northwell, told Becker's the externship program is not only beneficial for externs, but for the employees helping them.

"It provides nursing students the opportunity to understand how the hospital environment works in a way that they don't get to see during traditional clinical experiences. [It also provides] the nursing team and the rest of the unit team the opportunity to get to know that nursing student," Ms. Casler said. 

She added: "It's really mutually beneficial. It provides a compassionate learning environment for the nursing student as well as for the nursing team to get a deeper understanding of what the current experience of our nursing students is as well as how they can help to support their transition to practice."

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