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3 Ways to Rev Employee Development Programs

 |  By Lena J. Weiner  
   November 24, 2014

Some frontline workers have everything it takes to move up—except a college degree. Boston Children's Hospital found a way to help them, and improved employee engagement and retention along with skillsets.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that one in every five nurses leaves his or her first job within one year and one third of nurses leave within two years. This drives down retention rates and creates a constant state of retraining, understaffing, and organizational frustration.


Loh-Sze Leung

So, where can you find employees who will be aligned with and understand your organization's goals and values? They might be right under your nose.

Some hospitals and healthcare systems are turning to frontline worker development programs to grow their own staff—especially nurses, but also medical billing and coding specialists, processing roles, allied health positions and administrators, says Loh-Sze Leung.

Leung is a nonprofit consultant who until recently was the executive director at SkillWorks, a Boston-based initiative that helps to connect employers with organizations that provide training to current employees interested in learning more skills applicable to their current fields (she still works with SkillWorks in a consulting capacity).

Since 2009, Boston Children's Hospital (BCH) has been developing dedicated frontline workers into educated professionals with skills that are in demand though its Bridge to College program.

The frontline trenches are a good place to start looking for your next healthcare leaders. The largest growth in employment within the healthcare sector over recent years has been among lower-paying, pre-baccalaureate occupations, but most jobs in healthcare that offer a living wage require an associate's degree or above. A college education is often out of reach for students from modest backgrounds, and therein lies the problem—and the opportunity.

Leung estimates that 140 of BCH's employees are either currently taking classes or have completed a degree through the Bridge to College. Five years and 140 employees later, BCH and its partners have learned some valuable lessons about tuition reimbursement, professional development and maintaining a pipeline of skilled workers.

1. Partner Up
BCH did not do this alone—its HR department collaborated with numerous organizations, including SkillWorks, CareerStat, an employer-led national organization that promotes employer investment career development of frontline health care workers, and Jewish Vocational Services, a Massachusetts-based group that assists with career development and training.

For non-traditional students, going back to the classroom can be daunting, especially if refresher courses in basic math or English are needed. Luckily, BCH was able to work with Jewish Vocational Services to prepare candidates for college level work.

BCH provided free training to its employees. 

The cost, (shared with SkillWorks) of about $6,000 per participating employee per year assured that frontline workers had computer literacy, college entry-level math, and necessary English skills. It also meant that when the students attempted college-level courses, they would be ready for them.

2. Offer Tuition Assistance Up Front
College-level courses may be prohibitively expensive on a frontline worker's wages. So rather than reimbursing the employee after successful completion of a course, BCH paid tuition up front. If the employee passed the class with a C-grade or above, the student didn't have to pay a dime.

"Over a four-year period, only two students have not passed one class each," says Leung. "For part time students who are also working and have other responsibilities, that's a high rate of success." BCH's program also closed a gap in tuition reimbursement by covering the cost of certifications and certificates, which traditionally are not covered through tuition reimbursement programs.

3. Start Small and Get Buy-In
BCH started its frontline worker development program with a pilot, rolling it out in one department, with students who were destined for high-growth, high-demand courses of study. As the program become a success, BCH began expanding the program to other departments and more areas of interest.

As the program spread to new departments, human resources worked with managers in those areas to ensure early release for employees heading to class, plus encouragement and support. "That support helps them get through [higher education]," says Leung. "This program really requires buy-in and support from frontline supervisors and managers to be successful."

While some supervisors have expressed concern that their best and brightest will move on once they finished school, many have been happily surprised to see that workers become more engaged in their work after taking advantage of educational benefits. "Their performance gets better, their morale gets better," Leung says. "It's not just about 'what's the next step?'"

She suggests that HR leaders interested in starting similar programs start by looking into their own organizational staffing needs. "Make the case for supporting this sort of program. Examine what the needs are within your institution and go from there," Leung says.

"Most students who have engaged [in the program] are still on the path to achieving their professional goals," she says—and BCH will have a full pipeline of employees who are prepared for careers in healthcare.


Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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