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Why We Need to Recognize America's Frontline Health Care Workers

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If you've entered a hospital lately, whether for a routine medical test or complex surgical procedure, you might think that nurses or doctors would provide most of your care. In fact, the reality is that frontline workers--ranging from phlebotomists to medical assistants, certified nursing assistants to housekeeping staff--play a vital, yet often overlooked, role in the quality of patient care. What is surprising is that despite performing these important jobs, frontline workers in health care typically earn less than $40,000 each year and may not be getting the support they need to advance in their careers.

In addition, on the not-so-distant horizon are anticipated workforce shortages in health care due to the expected retirement of older workers and, at the same time, an increased need for health care services thanks to an aging population. This will create an unprecedented demand for talent supply chains to fill occupations in this industry, including for frontline workers. How can we prepare America's frontline health care workforce and their employers to meet this impending demand? The answer: by investing in the skills and career development of these workers today.

Those health care employers that already invest in the skills and career development of their frontline staffs are reaping the rewards of such an investment. They report lower staff turnover and vacancy rates, reduced recruitment costs and needed orientation time, as well as increased employee morale and motivation. More importantly, they are seeing improved patient care and a competitive advantage.

For example, Larry Beck, former president and consultant to MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital notes that the hospital provides educational programs for frontline workers to become credentialed as certified nurse assistants, nursing technicians, LPNs, RNs, respiratory therapists and surgical technicians. These opportunities provide advanced pay and career opportunities, while reducing turnover in these highly competitive positions.

As another example, in Louisville, Tony Bohn, Norton Healthcare's vice president and chief human resources officer, cites a workforce development metrics system designed to analyze outcomes of its training and development programs. The data helps management and staff better understand current and long-term workforce development needs, including the effects of programs on retention and hiring. In addition, its "Norton Scholars" Program, a tuition loan forgiveness program that allows current and prospective employees to pay off some of their college tuition debt, has led to much lower turnover than non-participants and a cost savings of over $5 million to the hospital, as there were fewer terminations than without the program.

To support and encourage health care providers in these and similar efforts, CareerSTAT, a national collaboration of health care leaders, has been created and is being led by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and its implementation and operational partner, Jobs for the Future. This initiative is working to bring attention to the need for health care employers to invest in the skills and career development of their frontline workforce, and to share information about best practices for the industry's benefit.

New this year, CareerSTAT is debuting an annual "Frontline Health Care Worker Champions" program, where it will recognize those employers making significant workforce development opportunities available to their frontline staff, including coaching or employee mentoring, tutoring, release time for training at work, payment of tuition benefits and credit-bearing academic courses that lead to a certificate or degree. It's one important way that health care employers that are taking the lead in investing in their frontline staff can be recognized for their efforts.

To learn more about CareerSTAT and the Frontline Health Care Worker Champions program, visit http://nfwsolutions.org/initiatives/careerstat.

Jan Hunter is director for CareerSTAT, National Fund for Workforce Solutions.