Health systems grow apprenticeships to tackle shortages

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Charnika Wilson has been looking to get more involved in patient care after working as administrative faculty for a community-based clinic in Chicago.

Her search led her to Rush University System for Health. Wilson was one of 22 people selected from more than 3,000 applicants for a new medical assistant apprenticeship run by Rush and Harper College, which pays for students’ tuition and books while offering them hourly pay and benefits.

“This program offered schooling, pay and a guaranteed job. I don’t know other schools that offer that,” Wilson said. “This gives me a chance to do direct patient care and make a difference for this community. This is not just a paycheck and a job. This is my career.”

For many healthcare occupations, hospitals and physician groups have not been able to recruit enough qualified workers to meet the demand. While apprenticeships are common in other industries, more health systems and physician groups are exploring or expanding these programs as they hope to boost recruitment and retention amid persistent labor shortages.

Nearly half of 675 medical practices surveyed in the spring said medical assistants were the most difficult to recruit, as many people holding these jobs left the industry for higher-paying posts, according to a poll by the Medical Group Management Association, which represents medical practices. That has pushed more work onto other staff, boosting pay and burnout, and delaying care, physician groups said.

“This was not a problem that was new to Rush, but certainly with the pandemic it swelled incredibly,” said Marcos DeLeon, chief human resources officer at the health system. “This is just some of the thinking that healthcare is going to have to embrace—we have to look at things differently. We will not stop here.”

The medical assistant role is projected to be one of the fastest growing in the industry through 2031. Employment of medical assistants will grow 16% from 2021 to 2031, outpacing the estimated 12% growth rate of all other healthcare support occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how many ads you are running or how many recruiters you hire, there is not enough people qualified to do the work,” said Charlotte Byndas, director of recruitment operations and contingent workforce at Spectrum Health, which has had a medical assistant apprenticeship since 2013. “That is where apprenticeships are playing a key role. Over the next 12 months, we are looking at how to scale and expand our apprenticeship programs.”

The demand for all types of healthcare support is poised to grow as the U.S. population ages. Meanwhile, medical assistants are becoming a more important part of team-based care models. They handle administrative duties as well as some clinical tasks like drawing blood, easing clinicians’ workloads and helping coordinate patient care.

The healthcare industry has been more reluctant to pursue apprenticeships because it is so heavily regulated, said Bridgett Willey, director for allied health education and career pathways at the Madison, Wisconsin-based system UW Health.

“Now, as college enrollment is dropping and people are leaving the healthcare workforce, apprenticeship provides a solution that reimagines how students can get experience and an education,” she said.

UW Health created its medical assistant apprenticeship in 2018 and recently launched a youth program geared toward high school students. The adult apprenticeship has increased diversity among its workforce and boosted retention, Willey said. Turnover is only 3% among its apprentice graduates versus 23% for medical assistants across the health system.

UW Health, in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, also has apprenticeships for nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, maintenance technicians and other skilled trades in facilities management. It launched a paramedic program last month and will start a phlebotomy apprenticeship this year, she said.

“We have a list of 15 or 16 other areas that we are waiting to see if there is support,” Willey said. “I have had several informational meetings with other healthcare organizations about the model—interest has gone up significantly since the pandemic.”

Spectrum Health, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based system that merged with Beaumont Health in January, teamed with the Michigan Works! Association and Grand Rapids Community College for its apprenticeship program. The health system has an electroencephalogram apprenticeship and one for nutrition services, in addition to a medical assistant program.

Spectrum has considered adjusting its apprenticeship programs’ teaching and training schedule to broaden its reach. Expanding beyond the typical August/September start time and traditional daily hours could attract more diverse students, Byndas said.

“We are trying to align our goal across healthcare organizations to serve a greater number of people in the community,” she said.

Wilson, the Rush medical assistant apprentice, started the five-semester program in August and hopes to graduate in May 2024. It spans three levels, the first of which involves shadowing clinicians to get to know the system and infrastructure. Apprentices start at minimum wage—$15.40 an hour in Chicago—and can make up to $17.65 an hour as they work up to patient-facing roles. 

Wilson plans to use the apprenticeship as a stepping stone to becoming a certified nurse assistant with a specialization in prevention. Diabetes runs in her family, and she hopes to help others identify early signs of diabetes and adjust their lifestyle to stave off the disease.

“I always preach to my nieces how serious diabetes is and how it is hereditary for us,” Wilson said. “Hopefully I can share more information with members of the community about how these diseases can be prevented.”

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