Education programs create loyal, valuable employees

Language classes, GED classes pay off

Finding the secret to successful retention of home health aides is not easy, but HomeCare Options, a Paterson, NJ, agency with 350 aides with an average tenure of eight years, may be holding the key to the success other agencies want. Because aides are most interested in learning skills that help them now in both their jobs and their personal lives, HomeCare Options took a close look at who made up their work force, says Ken Wessel, MSW, ACSW, LSW, executive director of the agency. "The majority of our aides are Hispanic, many without a high school education and many for whom English is a second language," he says.

To help the aides gain the education to address these issues, HomeCare Options established two programs:

1. High school equivalency degree program.

"We partnered with the Paterson Adult School to develop a high-school equivalency program for our aides," Wessel says. The classes meet Monday and Wednesday nights from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. There were 40 aides in the initial class.

"We don’t pay the aides to attend the class, but we do pay for the teacher’s salary and FICA expenses, as well as books used in the class," he says.

The funds to cover the cost of the program come from a customized training grant offered by the state’s Department of Labor (DOL), Wessel explains. "It was very easy to show how this program will help our aides further their education and their chances to advance in their jobs and improve their salaries, which means they will continue to be self-sufficient and independent of state assistance."

Of the 40 aides in the initial class, 11 received high school diplomas within nine months, he says. "This was a tremendous accomplishment for these aides because they worked during the day and went to class at night while juggling their family responsibilities."

The program owes much of its success to the person hired to teach the class, Wessel says. "She is a certified teacher who is bilingual in Spanish and is a nurse," he notes. The combination of Spanish and nursing background means that she relates to her students and understands what their work and personal lives are like, he adds.

There is an added benefit to this program: Wessel now has potential employees applying to his agency’s home care aide training program specifically because the agency has the high-school equivalency program. "They plan to complete the training program, get hired, and attend the high school equivalency classes."

2. Instruction in English as a second language.

"When we started the high-school equivalency classes, we found that some aides’ English was not strong enough to learn the material easily," he says. With another grant from the DOL, HomeCare Options offered English as a second language (ESL) classes for employees. Ten employees graduated the first ESL class in May. "We found that the ESL class makes it much easier for the aide to understand their job, communicate with patients, and go on to other educational opportunities," Wessel adds.

Because the topics used in the class to practice English are the same topics covered in the U.S. Citizenship Test, students who were not citizens prior to the class found the test much easier to pass, he says. "We’ve also taken other steps to make it easier for our aides to apply for citizenship by partnering with the local Catholic Services Agency to help aides complete the application," Wessel explains. His agency also pays the fees for the application and test. "We recently had 12 aides become new citizens," he says.

While these programs require planning time and funds, Wessel says the efforts are worthwhile. "You can’t do just one or two things and say that you’ve shown aides that you appreciate them. You have to look at what is important to their lives and develop programs that work together to help them develop," he adds. Not only do these efforts help retain aides for the agency, but Wessel points out that his agency does no recruiting. "Whenever we offer a training class that is required in our state for any person to work as a home health aide, we fill it up. Word of mouth from our own aides rather than advertising is the reason for our success."

An added benefit: Aides gain skills and confidence. They want to add to their education and help HomeCare Options keep good nurses, Wessel points out. "We have more aides each year take advantage of our tuition assistance program that reimburses up to $1,000 of tuition expenses as they go on to nursing school."