Businesses and health care join forces

Career ladders help, says study

If businesses and communities worked with hospitals, there would be fewer serious shortages of health care workers, says a new study by the VHA Health Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to the study, Community-Wide Career Ladders, working together works wonders.

In St. Paul, MN, hospitals, community colleges, and a work force training program participating in the national study, called Community-Wide Career Ladders for the Health Sector, enrolled 363 participants by the end of 2002. Among the individuals who completed training were 128 nursing assistants, 18 phlebotomists, and seven health unit coordinators. Eighty-four participants had been placed in participating hospitals, while others had offers and were waiting to start work.

"Through the career ladders initiative, workers are empowered with the skills they need to excel; employers get the structure and support they need from education and work force groups; and hospitals develop and sustain a viable employee base," says Linda DeWolf, vice president of the foundation.

Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Community-Wide Career Ladders is a VHA Health Foundation study of three cities and their efforts to design and develop local programs that target the unemployed and current health care workers by giving them opportunities to advance in the health care sector. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Workforce Preparation worked in collaboration with VHA Health Foundation and local chambers to facilitate community partnerships among health care providers, work force development leaders, and educators. The study provided leadership and facilitation in three urban locations — Sacramento, CA; St. Paul; and Washington, DC.

"The initiative shows that successful collaboration simply means more workers for everyone," says Beth B. Buehlmann, executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation. "Organizations in a single market can communicate a positive image of health care careers and broaden opportunities and incentives for health care education through relationships with colleges, corporations, and foundations."

The three participating cities developed a health care career ladder and a working infrastructure unique to their cities that would ensure the continuation of local community efforts. Additionally, project participants learned about collaborative dynamics and factors that determine a community’s readiness to develop a health sector career ladder. This information will be used as a resource for other communities interested in developing health care or other industry career ladders.

Other key findings of the initiative include:

  • It is important for all health care organizations in a market to participate. They are likely to do so if there is an assurance that everyone is playing by the same rules.
  • Health care organization leaders need to publicly support the project.
  • Partners should be willing to experiment with a variety of approaches.
  • A sense of urgency causes quick action. 
  • For their economic buy-in, employers need to see a clearly defined return, such as a specified number of qualified, new employees and improved retention rates.

Each collaborative in the three cities was at a different point in developing sector-specific work force recruitment and retention programs, and each was at a different level of collaboration, both with one another and with other sectors that have a stake in an educated, trained and employed population.

In Sacramento, the specter of state-mandated nursing ratios, which the state will implement next year, adds particular urgency to work force shortages in California. Sacramento health care and education organizations already were experienced in collaborating to create healthy communities. However, human resource departments among the health care organizations were new to collaboration. New relationships were formed using existing organizational contexts.

With a health careers institute up and running, health care organizations and others in St. Paul were already collaborating to address the work force shortage problem. For St. Paul, the job was to evolve and fine-tune the program to meet the needs of the employer and the incumbent and potential employees. Participation in the Community-Wide Career Ladders project was an opportunity to reflect on what they had accomplished and engage all stakeholders in developing the next steps for long-term success.

Competing health care organizations and education and work force training agencies met for the first time for this project in Washington, DC.

While the city offers a wealth of funding and technical assistance for work force development, there was no central access point. This site would start from the beginning to create collaboration and define its vision. 

"The Community-Wide Career Ladders study proves a point," says DeWolf. "When hospitals and businesses in a community cease competing for workers and work together, there are three winners —the community, the employee, and the employer."