SAW Program Builds Employees' Confidence for College

HealthLeaders Media Staff, July 13, 2009

Yolanda Salas always wanted to be an RN. The Chicago native and billing clerk at St. Anthony Hospital had plans to go to college after she graduated from high school in 1995, but then life happened. She got married, had two kids, and with each passing year college seemed a little more remote.

In the last eight months, however, that lifelong ambition has gone from a dream to a reality. After graduating next month from St. Anthony's new in-house "School At Work" program, Salas, 32, will begin classes this fall at nearby Wright College with the short-term goal of becoming an LPN, and then incrementally working toward her RN certificate.

Salas was one of 18 employees picked from the 950 full- and part-time employees at the 150-licensed-bed community hospital in Chicago's gritty west side for the first 32-week SAW course in February to brush up on their reading, language, computer literacy, and math skills, and to introduce them to basic medical terminology, anatomy, physiology, and medical ethics.

"What I gained the most is getting confidence because I had so much time out of school," Salas says. "I was starting to get nervous about how different it would be back in school so many years after I left. The program gave me a lot of confidence, especially my coach and my classmates and the whole hospital gave us the support to go back to school."

While School at Work is new at St. Anthony's, the idea was developed about 15 years ago by Lynn Fischer, founder/CEO of Catalyst Learning Center. SAW gives employers the tools to "grow their own" workforces, which will reduce turnover, improve morale, and give entry-level employees the opportunities to improve their lives. Everybody wins.

SAW wasn't designed specifically for hospitals, it just seems that way. It's hard to imagine a better environment for the program to flourish. The demand for healthcare workers—although slowed of late because of the recession—is expected to grow as the nation ages. Hospitals routinely hire dozens of entry level employees, many of whom crave the opportunity to improve their lives. About 370 hospitals in 41 states have adopted the program, which uses job coaches, mentors, DVD and Internet classes, and traditional workbooks. The students also used the class time to prepare for college entry tests, fill out admissions applications, and organize their finances so they could apply for financial aid.

Of the 18 employees who began the SAW course at St. Anthony's in February, all 18 will graduate on Aug. 13, and all of them are either planning to attend college or prepping for the GED, with the expectation that they will attend college eventually. That 100% success rate has surprised even Pamela Jones, a veteran workforce development manager at St. Anthony's who was hired to run SAW.

"Usually, with different programs in workforce development, you might get 75% retention," Jones says. "With this one the reason why they've hung in there is they have a lot of support internally at the hospital and it came from the top down."

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