A new breed of apprenticeships

Michael Redmond, president of Bergen Community College, announces a $12 million grant from the U.S. Labor Department that will help community colleges in the state develop and expand healthcare apprenticeships. (Photo: BCC)

For more than 4,000 years we’ve recognized the unique value of apprenticeships, and they are gaining steam today, particularly in new fields like healthcare, where workforce demand, bipartisan support and some new thinking at community colleges are fueling their fast-paced growth.

“We’re running as fast as we can,” says Christine Gillespie, director of continuing education and workforce development at Bergen Community College (New Jersey), which took the lead in obtaining a recent $12 million federal grant that will help 14 community colleges in the state develop healthcare apprenticeships with nearby worker-starved employers.

“There is a critical need to fill healthcare jobs, and employers are telling us that while book knowledge is wonderful and should be part of the training, on-the-job experience is critical in these positions,” she says.

New approaches

The Scaling Apprenticeship Through Sector-Based Strategies Grant to Bergen and its consortium is part of $184 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) last summer to 23 institutions – including several community colleges – to support apprenticeships in information technology, advanced manufacturing and healthcare.

The enthusiasm for apprenticeships has been bolstered by some new higher education approaches allowing greater employer involvement at each stage, Gillespie says. Determinations about the location of the programs are based on their reports about workforce needs, for instance, and employers hire students and guide classroom content.

“A lot of this is flipped from what higher education is used to. It is very much employer-driven,” she says. “It also means you really need to know your community before you approach this model. You have to involve employers, know their needs and have buy-in and a firm commitment about who they are willing to hire.”

Working through challenges

In Michigan, Grand Rapids Community College has learned those lessons in its three years of offering an apprenticeship program for medical assistants – and in its planning for a new program to train sterilization technicians beginning next year, according to Linda Witte, program manager.

“They are a great way for us to provide training that otherwise would have been too expensive, but in areas where there is a huge need. We’ve had no problems that have been insurmountable,” she says, noting that often it simply took flexibility about timing class and work, and consideration of employer requirements and industry certifications. “It sometimes just boils down to scheduling and standards.”

Related information: Projected registered apprenticeships by state

The Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH), which has historically been committed to offering training programs responsive to the state’s workforce needs, began to develop apprenticeship programs in six healthcare specialties three years ago, thanks to funding from a different DOL grant, according to Emily Zeien, grant manager. The funding has helped CCSNH partner with eight companies, with other agreements planned.

“We hear from employers all the time that they want to invest in something like this in healthcare and we want to meet their needs,” says Beth Doiron, director of college access programs, who notes that state unemployment is about the lowest in the nation and too often young people leave for educational opportunities elsewhere, which exacerbates the employment gap.

Leveraging a regional alliance

While the apprenticeship model benefits both the healthcare sector and colleges hoping to boost enrollment and increase relevancy in their local economies and communities, the positions also provide a lifeline for independent students who need training and an income, says Steve Jurch, assistant dean for health and business services at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in Maryland, which received $1.9 million through a DOL Scaling Apprenticeship grant.

CCBC is offering its apprenticeships in connection with Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine and its 11 affiliated businesses and through a regional healthcare industry alliance. The alliance has been critical in promoting and explaining the program, recruiting employers, matching the positions and handling registration, Jurch says. The initiative is expected to train 800 apprentices over four years as healthcare central service technicians, front office employees and medical assistants.

“Hopkins will design the model and match the training program with positions available within the institution,” he says. “They support it because they can determine the standards with our assistance and get quality employees along the way.”

Beyond assisting with introductory training, these apprenticeships often can help workers in the field advance. Bergen’s consortium offers nine programs but intends to add four more, two of which are expected to help licensed practical nurses (LPNs) become registered nurses and emergency services technicians become paramedics.

Jurch says the CCBC program also will offer pre-apprenticeships that provide students an introduction into certain programs and give employers a pool of potential workers to draw from without committing to them over a longer term. The pre-apprenticeships are expected to pre-train surgical and central sterile processing technicians, environmental care specialists and LPNs.

Five key elements

Here are five things colleges with experience at healthcare apprenticeships say should be considered in the process of developing them.

Useful connections. Successful programs have staff members assigned to promote the program and work with employers or the agency coordinating it to make certain the process for participants at both ends is efficient. Such links were lacking in the past, and employers at times have been skittish about college-based apprenticeships, fearing complications and excessive paperwork would outweigh the value.

Need is key. Is there a need for such a program, and, specifically, what sort of positions are available and for how long? Experts say gathering good data from workforce experts pays off, but also through close relationships so the schools can understand the employers’ perspective and get granular information about their needs.

Collaborate. Then collaborate some more. Beyond closely coordinating the process of finding and hiring employees and meeting employer needs, educational institutions should develop schedules that benefit employers and students. Grand Rapids Community College found a combination of 24 hours on the job and 16 in the classroom worked best. Employers should also be involved in development of classroom materials.

Consider the student. To make the student experience positive and valuable, get buy-in from the faculty and make sure they are informed and enthusiastic. Bergen’s program provides student “success coaches” at each campus. Consider wages and schedules that allow independent students to study and earn, and wage increases at various stages. (Some programs, however, also require repayment of tuition for those who don’t finish.)

Review and adjust. Understand that the program will take time to develop and will need polishing. Have a structure in place to make sure beyond the first few years it maintains momentum, sustains support for existing students and engages new recruits. Formally review the process with input from all those participating, even if it seems successful; the market and the students change.

About the Author

Jim Paterson
writes about education and energy. He lives in Lewes, Delaware.