Job Promotion Training Program

"Before the School at Work program, I never thought I would go anywhere," admitted Sheryl Warren, a lab assistant and phlebotomist at St. Mary's Hospital. "I had accepted a dead-end life and felt as if I were stuck. Now I've got the knowledge and a plan to use it."

Warren is one of 13 entry-level staff members who recently graduated from the School at Work (SAW) pilot program, an eight-month career development agenda created by Kentucky-based Catalyst Learning. The classes prepare entry-level health care employees for better-paying jobs and for entrance into local community colleges. Its targeted curriculum, drafted exclusively for health-care workers, encourages hospitals to mature their own workforce through education and career advancement.

A single mother of five, Warren credits SAW with revitalizing her hopes of a continued education, and said she will return to school in the fall to take medical assistance courses, and later complete her nursing prerequisites. Still, as a laboratory assistant today, Warren concedes that it is quite tempting "to move to another hospital or position that makes more money," but she won't. "I have a marriage now to St. Mary's."

That's exactly how St. Mary's hoped she'd feel when it initiated the program. The win-win formula is intended to give each side a profitable final outcome, but there is an upfront cost to both. For St. Mary's, it's the cost of training during work hours. For Warren, the cost is the wait time for advancement.

It's a Business Model First

St. Mary's implemented SAW as a way to increase employee engagement, to boost the number of entry-level employees moving into clinical, clerical, and higher-level support positions, and to reduce turnover among entry-level staff.

The idea was to make a built-in pipeline to move staff into critical positions where vacancies were hardest to fill. Educating "up" could prove to be a time- and cost-savings model over traditional recruitment methods.

Dr. Frank Byrne explained his partiality to the program from his vantage point as president of St. Mary's: "The combination of an aging population and an aging health care workforce means we face a serious future challenge assuring we have enough caregivers.

"Most people are aware of the projections for an increasing nursing shortage. Many are not aware that there are significant shortages in other areas, such as imaging technicians for ultrasound and CT studies.

"Within nursing, there is a great national demand for nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists who can help respond to increasingly complex patients, and an increasingly complex business environment."

He added, "Programs like School at Work allow people to grow as workforce needs change. This is one tool to help ensure our workforce evolves in the same way that the needs of those we serve evolve."

It also shores up the corporate culture, noted Byrne. "This benefits St. Mary's by allowing us to retain a colleague who is already a valued member of our organizational family. We avoid the risk and expense of bringing in an unknown quantity who may or may not be a good fit for our culture.

"We also gain an increased commitment from those who benefit from this program. This also strengthens our 'grow your own' culture. We have a history of people working in non-clinical positions as they pursue their education, and developing our own staff for specialized positions like Clinical Nurse Specialist."

Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, director of St. Mary's childcare center and School at Work program, said she felt that "support-level workers, the ones with little or no college experience, really don't often get valued. They are usually overlooked in an organization." She feels this program has shown that entry-level positions do matter and are valuable to St. Mary's.

She added, "It's a way for us to enhance our inner growth and development. This past year, I've seen people transform from being apprehensive about the program to leaving with a high level of confidence that they can conquer whatever they set their minds to. Students get the opportunity to think critically about their job development and life plans."

Coincidentally, Hargrove-Krieghoff's responsibilities have grown with the new program, and she enjoys the change of her own circumstance because of it.

Motivation "to do Better in Life"

Another SAW 2008 graduate is Zhena Hall, a sterile processing technician in the health care industry for more than 10 years. She credits the program with motivating her economically and emotionally, for she is going back to school to "do better in life for my four children."

Said Hall, "Right now, I'm about to enroll in the LPN program at Herzing University, but I don't plan to stop there. I'm moving up the ladder slowly — and I'm getting there.

"SAW showed me the importance of an education," Hall added. "Now I want to have a career, not just a job. I know the difference between the two now. I am not happy taking the easy way in life and am ready to reach higher."

Hargrove-Kreighoff said that each of the 13 graduates currently works at St. Mary's Hospital, and that the program has indeed honed skills in employees that may help them advance internally. The participants came from 10 departments, and 85% of the slots were filled by clinical employees.

The hospital intends to continue using SAW as a conduit to meet future needs by increasing the number of inside promotions among entry-level workers.

"This does help us grow our own team," said Hargrove-Krieghoff, echoing Byrne's words. "It becomes a good retention tool. They feel very valued and supported by St. Mary's, and they take their new enthusiasm and knowledge with them to use back in their current positions."

The SAW Program Mechanics

SAW's instructional model offers on-site education at the employer location. More than 7,600 students in over 385 hospitals have used it as part of their career ladder restructuring. As a de facto college preparatory course, SAW erects a "bridge" for students to cross before entering local community college certificate and degree programs.

The eight-month curriculum is divided into two 32-hour semesters. It is free to the employees, who, as an incentive to sign up, are paid for their time. However, they must make a commitment to attend weekly classes.

The first semester, employees are reacquainted with basic academic skills, such as reading and grammar, before being immersed in health care topics. The second course re-emphasizes the basics of the health care profession, followed by refreshers on medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and all materials specific to health services.

"It's given me a better knowledge of what I already do and given my current job more security and stability," said Warren. "Now I carry a planner with me. I'm a much more organized person for it."

Warren and Hall agreed that the SAW program has boosted their morale, self-confidence, and loyalty, and that it has showed them that St. Mary's Hospital — particularly its upper management staff — cares about them, their maturation, and their futures.

"The administration visited us while we were in class," said Hall. "They explained all the barriers and obstacles that they have faced in their lives and told us that they needed us to run and maintain the hospital."

Early Results

More than 30% of SAW students enroll in continuing education within 90 days of completion. So far, 46% of St. Mary's first class have enrolled in a certificate or degree program and more intend to enroll in the near future. Of those, 54% have interest in pursuing a nursing degree.

"Since graduating, I've been working more as a team member," confided Warren. "There are no walls in between departments anymore."

Hargrove-Krieghoff said that SAW is used only in the health care industry at this time, although in the future it may be extended to other industries. She labels the program "a success" because it is has helped diminish turnover costs and provides the much less expensive option of training people from within.

Indeed, not only has SAW opened new opportunities to learn for St. Mary's employees such as Hall and Warren, but it also is credited with large, intangible benefits like instilling them with a bolder sense of independence and self-esteem.

"I have a real sense of worth and a better attitude toward the future now," said Warren. "I want to be the best I can be and do it humbly."