When it comes to being a successful community health worker, academic background takes a backseat to life experiences and characteristics like compassion, reliability, and the ability to connect with people, experts say.

“To be effective, community health workers should be compassionate, resourceful, and most importantly, be a member of the community they serve and/or have a shared life experience. Some community health workers have a high school diploma or even a general educational development [GED] diploma, but they also have a wealth of experience that makes them invaluable to the people they are serving,” says April Hicks, MSW, chief operating officer of the Community Health Worker Network of NYC.

Community health workers should share a life experience, language, culture, or disease with their clients and be a trusted member of the community they serve, Hicks adds. “Their life experiences and familiarity with the community is critical to their success and fills a need in the continuum of care,” Hicks says.

New York-Presbyterian Hospital doesn’t require its community health workers to have a specific degree or level of training. Instead, the health system chooses candidates that have community-based experience working in local organizations, says Patricia Peretz, MPH, lead for the Center for Community Health Navigation at New York-Presbyterian.

“We look for natural connectors who speak the language of the community and have a good understanding of the community and know how to navigate the local resources. We want people with shared life experiences that make them able to support and empathize with the patients,” she says.

Candidates for the Individualized Management for Patient-Centered Targets (IMPaCT) community health worker program at the University of Pennsylvania Health System must have a high school diploma or GED, be familiar with the neighborhood they will serve, and have some experience with the healthcare system, which could be as a patient or a caregiver, says Jill Feldstein, MPA, chief operating officer for the Penn Center for Community Health Workers at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “We have a thorough hiring process that uses a mix of tools in the selection process, and as a result we have almost no turnover,” Feldstein says.

One step in the hiring process is a “meet and greet” for applicants and staff members. The center staff invites about 15 applicants at a time to a “meet and greet” where they talk informally. Interviews also incorporate activities that include role playing and patient case scenarios.

“We are looking for people who are good listeners, are able to think on their feet, who can stand up for people, and help them move through a complicated healthcare system,” she says.

Many of the community health workers in the Penn Center for Community Health Workers program have a lot of experience helping people in their community, Feldstein says.

“They say they’ve been doing the same thing all of their lives and they are excited to be doing it as a career,” she says.

A robust training curriculum is critical to the success of a community health worker program, Hicks says. “Community health workers don’t necessarily have an academic background, but it is important for them to receive training so they can do their job effectively,” she says.

The CHW Network of NYC’s training teaches the participants how to think critically and how to relate to the people they work with, Hicks says.

“Our training was developed in direct response to the state needs of both CHWs and their employers. They are evidence-based and supported by original research we conducted in partnership with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. This training provides CHWs with the care skills they need to conduct the tasks and fulfill the roles in the community health worker practice. It helps place their work within the context of client empowerment and individual/community development,” she says.

“When the community health workers step into someone’s home, they can’t take a cookie-cutter approach; they have to work with every patient as an individual. They can’t be judgmental and they can’t just tell people what to do,” she says.

Learning to communicate is one of the most important parts of training, Hicks says.

“Our training includes two full days just on communication. We teach them how to connect appropriately and to relate like a peer and not like someone on the top of the power structure,” she says.

Community health workers at the University of Pennsylvania Health System go through a month-long 140-hour training program that qualifies for college credit. After the classroom portion of the program, they shadow a senior community health worker for up to a week.