Frontline Healthcare Education: Building Learner Confidence & Enabling Advancement

By M. Lynn Fischer, Founder & CEO Catalyst Learning Company

This article is a continuation of the series, “Education and Career Planning for the Front-Line”, focusing on upward mobility for entry and mid-level healthcare associates. Check out the first two pieces: Support Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives by Upskilling the Front Line and Increasing Internal Support for Frontline Education Programs.

When people take advantage of training programs within the Veterans Hospital Administration (VHA), they have countless opportunities to transform their careers, according to Imon Muldrow, Chief of Environmental Management Services at the VA Health System in Pittsburg.  Muldrow is a prime example of amazing career trajectories. Over 12 years, he rocketed from housekeeper to supervisor of 250 associates who play a key role in patient satisfaction and safety. How? He enrolled in training for a fast climb in operations and eventually became a division supervisor.

Our customers are wise in the skill of understanding educational needs and converting those needs to education programs, so I am assuming readers of this series also have that kind of core L&OD knowledge. With that in mind, I’d like to share a few points that are critical to having a robust set of education offerings for front-line workers, particularly those at the entry-level. These are: access to technology; the importance of cohorts on building learner confidence; and knitting the post-secondary pieces together.

Education. Stumbling Blocks and Opportunities Unique to Entry-Level Associates

Access to Technology

Ensuring your learners have access to and comfort level with any technology required for their learning is essential and not to be taken for granted. (Think digital divide.) Having your technology-related bases effectively covered will improve confidence, completion rates, and outcomes.

As I write during the COVID-19 pandemic, the framework for education delivery has been revolutionized. The pandemic has vastly limited the ability for many to meet in traditional classroom settings. It has also extraordinarily accelerated the addition of virtual delivery options.

Given the incredibly rapid pace of change in this area, I won’t try to proscribe specific technology recommendations. My guidance is to research thoroughly your learners’ access to and comfort level with technology-delivered education. It is likely far different than your own. Be realistic about this.

For non-exempt employees, equipment is not the only issue related to “access”.  As mentioned in our last post, the single biggest barrier to providing more education for entry-level employees is the impact of labor cost on the hospital bottom line.  Health systems like Mercy (St. Louis) have crafted policies in which required training (paid) and optional self-development (unpaid) are clearly defined for non-exempt coworkers.  This separation is critical and allows your associates who want to advance themselves to be able to do so on their own time.

Plan, design and budget your proposed education and career planning offerings to remove technology-related barriers of all types. Be creative and collaborative with internal IT leaders or volunteer groups who are often willing to purchase or donate laptops for these employees. Examine your organization’s policies and work with Legal and leadership to alleviate labor cost concerns and increase access to learning for your lower-wage associates.

Building Learner Confidence – Increases Motivation to Succeed – Leads to Upward Mobility

As you attend recognition ceremonies for adult learners at programs like School at Work®, the comment you’ll hear most frequently is something like, “I never would have thought I could have accomplished — insert education, career or life goal — , but now I believe I can”. Makes sense, right? If I’ve had problems in my life experiences that cause me not to believe I have potential, my world view on future options is going to be limited.

Recent research from the Strada Education and Gallup bears out the need to improve low-skilled employee’s confidence in their ability to be successful. “Half of adults in the Public Viewpoint survey say that self-doubt would be a major impediment to their enrolling in postsecondary education, either because they fear they won’t be successful, have been out of school for too long, or a combination of the two. This lack of confidence ranks as the No. 2 challenge to enrollment, above cost (48 percent) and second only to logistics (55 percent).”

For your front-line associates to decide to go back to school to achieve a certificate or degree requires a lot of motivation! At this stage of life, those co-workers likely have family and other responsibilities that go well beyond the college student who enrolls as a single person immediately after high school. They are likely also low-income. In order have the motivation to take on the mega-goal of going back to school, these individuals must be highly confident.

Learner confidence is built by providing a supportive setting that results in program completion. An instructor/facilitator who has educational competence and treats individuals with empathy and respect is paramount. A cohort model in which other employees from similar circumstances learn together and provide moral support, through class challenges and inevitable life ups-and-downs, is also key.

Graphic depicting the progression an entry-level employee makes: first is confidence which leads to motivation. Next a career and life plan is made that is followed by employment and upward mobility.

Ken Bishop of AtlantiCare summeds up the change in confidence by describing students as nervous when one of his School at Work® classes begins. By the end of the program, they are standing in front of their classmates, making presentations and sharing newfound knowledge. “I joke that they’ve grown three inches. It’s because their posture changes. You can see it in how they carry themselves and interact with each other,” Bishop said.

“The program has made me a risk-taker and a goal setter.” said School at Work® Graduate JaQuita Newsome of Palmetto Health. I have been able to learn new ideas, make new friends, meet new people, advance my work skills and job performance, and it has made me push further towards job advancement.

Graduate JaQuita Newsome of Palmetto Health.

Enable Advancement; Knit the Postsecondary Education Pieces Together

Tuition Support. Upward mobility hinges on advanced education. Health systems spend millions supporting the continuing education of their employees. Check on a couple of structural elements to make sure there’s a level playing field for employees seeking their first credential or degree.

  • Ask, does our Tuition Reimbursement policy support community colleges and technical schools? Does it support attainment of credentials that are healthcare specific and roles that are employed within the organization? A “yes” to both of those questions is critical in your efforts to advance low-skilled. Properly credentialed certificate programs can move your colleague from a low-wage role to a family-sustaining wage job in 12-18 months. For those who wish to keep going, they can also be a confidence-building steppingstone to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
  • Lobby and Partner for Tuition Advancement. The cost of higher-education can be a barrier for low-income individuals, if they don’t have upfront funds to pay for school, post-program reimbursement may not solve the problem. Jenny Skinner of TriHealth in Cincinnati overcame this challenge by partnering with the System’s foundation. Jenny and her Education team identified, prepared, and mentored entry-level employees who wanted to go to college. The Foundation advanced the funds for tuition. Education then paid the Foundation from the Tuition Reimbursement budget as courses were completed. It is a creative team-solution to help low-wage employees avoid a cash outlay.

Nurture an Active Partnership with your Community & Technical College. Your organization likely already has a vibrant relationship with the local community college. If not, someone in the organization responsible for building the pipeline will want to build one. As the advocate for individuals who are likely not from a college-going background, you can foster their confidence by inviting college staff to speak to your employees, providing them a personal point of contact. Think about taking your group for a campus walk around, to improve their familiarity and comfort level. Get on-line with them and navigate around the college website. Work with them in advance of the taking placement test and if needed provide preparatory classes in Algebra and other subjects. Do whatever you can to make sure your newly motivated associate scores at a level on the placement test that puts them immediately into credit-bearing courses. Work strongly to overcome a placement test outcome that requires they go into remedial math or English classes as these are a total de-motivator and “the graveyard of student success”.

Be an Advocate!

Remember our story about Imon Muldrow?  Imon benefitted early in his VA career from the support of mentors, Elizabeth Jenkins, EEO/Diversity Program Director and Julia Gilmer, Chief of Food and Nutrition.  “Every good organization needs good people who feel like there’s an opportunity to grow, said Jenkins.  Imon had so many skills and abilities that he didn’t realize he had, a diamond in the rough.  The more we polished, the more he shined.”

Elizabeth, our team at Catalyst Learning, and the hundreds of others we have worked with at health systems throughout the US believe there is hidden gold in the often overlooked front-line employees in your organization.  Find it!  Unleash it! Watch them soar!

The lessons the Catalyst Learning team and I have learned about healthcare workforce development over the last 15 years are contained in this article series. (Check out the first two: Support Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives by Upskilling the Front Line and Increasing Internal Support for Frontline Education Programs.)


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