News & Events

In training, hospitals see big rewards

By Erin Ailworth

Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

Instead of just recruiting outside candidates to fill midlevel jobs, three area hospital systems are expanding training programs that will allow employees in lower-skilled jobs to move up the career ladder and fill these positions.

The initiative, prompted by an expected shortage in skilled medical workers, started in 2007 with a $1.5 million grant from the nonprofit Boston Foundation.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, and Partners HealthCare (owner of Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals) each got about $500,000, allowing them to ramp up training efforts for low-skilled, low-income workers — many of whom have high school educations. In exchange, the hospitals promised to keep their programs alive for another three years, and have committed millions of their own money to do so.

The initiative has helped more than 1,200 of the hospitals’ employees get career counseling and enroll in college-level courses and certificate programs.

Some workforce development and health care specialists suggest that this modest initiative could become a nation al model for other large employers. Already, a Cleveland hospital says it is interested in how the Boston program could help it expand its training efforts.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said such success demonstrates how a relatively small amount of money awarded by an outside entity can spur improvements in large institutions.

“I remember my board questioning me when we took this program to them: ‘How can this possibly make a difference?’ ’’ he said. “We showed that external funding, even if in dollar terms it’s not huge, can really enable something powerful and important.’’

Beth Israel, for instance, used its Boston Foundation money to start after-work classes on its Boston campus for medical assistants and other employees interested in becoming nurses, surgical technologists, or research administrators who track grant money. So far, more than 400 workers have enrolled.

Kelly-Ann DeSouza, a lead medical assistant who takes patients’ vital signs and does blood work, is training to be a nurse — which, she said, would be much harder without Beth Israel’s support. Among the advantages: She does not have to travel to local colleges or universities. The instructors come to her.

“Taking classes, working, and then having a family — sometimes it’s tough,’’ she said. “Even if we’re having a hard time, struggling with classes, there is always someone to help you out, just as if I was going to college.’’

The hospitals have long hired from outside, but a looming labor shortage — exacerbated by retirements and the state’s slow population growth — has made it increasingly difficult to recruit skilled workers.

Grogan said the foundation’s initiative grew from hospitals’ concerns about finding workers to fill midlevel positions that require some higher education or certification. The foundation agreed to provide money for the hospitals to build training programs over a three-year period, as long as each hospital promised to keep the programs alive for an additional three years.

Under the initiative, Partners HealthCare used grant money and its own funding to provide online tutorials and classes in math, science, and medical terminology. Partners also worked with managers to make sure that employees had time to train during the workday. So far, 220 people have enrolled.

“We had internal and external champions that allowed us to motivate this process,’’ said Partners’ president, Gary Gottlieb.

Nancy Snyder, president of Commonwealth Corporation, the state’s quasi-public workforce development agency, said the “grow your own’’ strategy the hospitals are using is often difficult to pull off. But the flexibility of the Boston Foundation’s funding — few restrictions or deadlines were imposed — allowed the hospitals to work out their own solutions.

“You really have to understand where your needs are going to be over the next two to four years, maybe three to five years, in the health care industry,’’ she said. “And you need to understand where the people whose skills you want to develop are at.’’

But the payoff, she said, can be huge because employers are creating a pool of employees with higher skills who “understand the culture, understand the business you’re in.’’

Anthony Stallion, pediatric surgeon and chief community relations officer at Cleveland Clinic, which has its own workforce development program, said his hospital is hoping to learn from the Boston hospitals’ experiences.

“We’re just looking around for other practices [asking] ‘How can we do it better,’ ’’ Stallion said. “Hopefully we’ll all be better for it.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at

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