Hospital Workers Go Back to School—At Work

July 6, 2009

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Diana Arevalo has worked at St. Anthony for 14 years. She now hopes to become a nurse.

We hear a lot about jobs lost in this economy. But in the health care field, there's a shortage of workers who directly care for patients. And it's expected to grow worse. One small hospital on the west side of Chicago is trying to address that by giving workers a hand up. St. Anthony Hospital is helping its lowest level employees make some atypical career moves.

ROSE: My name is Willie Rose, and when you come walking into the hospital and you see shiny floors here, that's what I do.

ambi: floor buffer

Willie Rose puts the floor buffer away at 3 o'clock. For the past 11 years he's gone home after that. But lately, he's been hitting the books after his shift—along with co-workers from food service, billing, and decontamination, people like Diana Arevalo.

ambi: restocking medical instruments 

AREVALO: I have to clean all the trays. They bring soiled down, IV pumps, feeding pumps, PCA pumps—and make sure it gets properly cleaned, and then IV pumps you wrap them up, put them back in their room.

Arevalo has learned a lot since she started here right out of high school 14 years ago, but this job is not taking her anywhere.

JONES: They get stuck and contained because they get comfortable. And they figure this is it, but this is not it.

Since January, Pamela Jones has been teaching medical terminology and basic skills to 18 workers here, including Arevalo and Rose.

ambi: classroom sound

St. Anthony's goal is to give workers the skills and encouragement they need to move into better-paying health care jobs within the hospital. If it works, Willie Rose could be working the X-ray machines in a few years, making almost twice what he's making now. Arevalo is aiming to be an RN.

JONES: They know they want to go up the ladder, but they just haven't had anybody invest in them to say, 'OK. We're willing to get you there.'

That's Jones' only job. Her class is a sort of prep course for the city colleges—all these students will have to enroll in certificate courses or degree programs to get new positions. Jones is helping them apply for financial aid, and they're eligible for tuition help from St. Anthony too.

For now, they go to class once a week before they punch in or after they clock out.

JONES: The model works because it is at work. They don't get a chance to go home…

It's a program tailored to students with a lot of challenges. They're older, they have family responsibilities, most haven't been to school for 10, 15—even 30 years. Some lack skills so basic, Jones had to start a prep course to her prep course.

St. Anthony isn't the only hospital putting effort into “grow your own” worker programs. A shortage of workers in health care is expected to worsen. Cathy Grossi is with the Illinois Hospital Association.

GROSSI: It's mutually a win-win. Because that person is going to grow in their level of expertise and understanding and career and salary. And the hospital wins because they're not expending dollars on somebody who may come in and then turn around and leave.

St. Anthony mainly serves the neighborhoods right around the hospital—North Lawndale, Pilsen and Little Village. Just 44 percent of adults in the community have a high school degree. Guy Medaglia is the hospital's CEO.

MEDAGLIA: The community hospital has to go in and see what are the needs of the people within the community, and then try to structure programs around that.

Those needs aren't limited to people's physical health, Midaglia says. The hospital also needs to be concerned about residents' quality of life. Many workers live on the west side.

MEDAGLIA: If we can help provide them with that advanced education we can actually make their life better.  We can help them from a self-esteem standpoint to a knowledge standpoint to actually more money in their pocket.

The hospital's bottom line also stands to benefit. Medaglia says he can't match salaries offered at bigger hospitals—but he hopes helping employees get ahead will attract workers to St. Anthony and keep them at the hospital. 

elevator ambi: I gotta get off on three!

Most everybody rides the same few elevators at St. Anthony. Pamela Jones says the entire a 150-bed hospital is rooting for the workers in her program. Willie Rose has noticed.

ROSE: Even administration. They're like, 'Oh, I've heard you've been getting good grades.' That makes me feel good. So that makes me want to do even better.

St. Anthony has recruited mentors at the hospital for the workers in the program. Diana Arevalo's mentor is St. Anthony's director of nursing—that's who could end up hiring her if she makes it through a nursing program. Arevalo says she hopes to start this fall.