Workforce Programs for Youth in Healthcare

This past week I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans for work. I had not been since 2018 (blaming

Cafe Beignet (Bourbon Street, New Orleans)

you COVIID) and it was nice to have a reason to go. I walked around a few hours, bought a beignet (after showing a bouncer my vaccination card), and talked to locals about how they’ve been fairing the last few years (not well).


The best part of the trip was attending Delta Regional Authority’s (DRA) meeting for rural workforce grantees. In December 2020 Rural Health Association of Tennessee was awarded a DRA grant to pilot a healthcare apprenticeship program for youth in West Tennessee.


I found MY PEOPLE at this meeting. Everyone there is doing amazing work to support the economic prosperity of underserved populations. Grantees have developed aviation mechanic programs, built adult education centers, and developed work skill trainings for formerly incarcerated populations. The vision and commitment of the people leading these programs is awe-inspiring.


Then there was us – A small association working to fill a need in rural health.


When I wrote the grant in the summer of 2020 the idea seemed simple. 1. There is a healthcare shortage 2. Youth unemployment is through the roof in West Tennessee. 3. The association has healthcare members. 4. The association has K-12 members 5. We should be able to support collaboration and bring resources to support common rural health goals.


Easy right?


Without going into all the details, our program is making progress and building momentum. We’ve had to adjust our approach and be creative, but we’re steadfast in achieving our goals. At the same time, the healthcare sector is decades behind manufacturing, technology, and others in establishing innovative “learn and earn” models – and we have felt the pain of this over the last year.


As a healthcare advocate there are many federal and state policy solutions to address workforce shortages I want to see adopted. Unfortunately, these policy solutions, like our formal training programs are skewed toward degree programs – therefore leaving behind hundreds of thousands of individuals who need a different pathway for entry into healthcare.


What I’m increasingly learning, is that healthcare systems need to take a hard look at their own policies and practices. It’s frustrating to see trained Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) take jobs in fast food because they haven’t yet turned 18. Good for the CNA, but too bad for us, he or she will make more money serving burritos than they will cleaning bedpans.


There is also a leadership issue in healthcare. Middle skill occupations are growing and in addition to the technical skills needed to do the job, employees and mangers need leadership and soft skill training to build community and support retention in the work place.


At the meeting Allison Forbes, Vice President for Research at Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness presented the below findings as needed solutions to workforce challenges (she was speaking broadly, but I'm looking at you healthcare!):

  • Embrace hands-on, experimental program designs (one of our apprentices failed her test to enter a nursing program by 3 points. She got a job at a hospital, gained skills and confidence, and has now passed her test and entering school this semester)

  • More "learn and earn" opportunities (many youth we've encountered are supporting their families - they don't have the privilege of working for free at a hospital or clinic).

  • Champion diversity and inclusion (when employers develop this mindset they start to look at the barriers to entry with new eyes and work to remove those barriers and find ways to support employee success)

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