Louisiana Workforce Commission Executive Director Ava Dejoie says financial incentives, such as those provided through a new $1.5 million federal grant the state has received, are vital to expanding apprenticeship programs in health care fields because they allow participants to earn an income as they further their training. LWC hopes to double the number of registered apprentices in the state over the next three years. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
Although too early to gauge its effectiveness, a $1.5 million federal grant awarded to the Louisiana Workforce Commission in October could stem a statewide shortage in nurses and surgical technicians through “earn while you learn” apprenticeships.
Part of the Expanding Opportunities Today to Meet Tomorrow’s Needs project, the grant is aimed at increasing the number of participants in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship program, primarily by eliminating financial obstacles to job advancement. LWC hopes to eventually increase the number of registered apprentices in the state by 100% over the next three years. There are currently about 3,600 registered apprentices, according to LWC Public Information Director Kimberly Buck.
“Participants are typically adults who have bills to pay, so it’s hard for them to enroll in a program where they’re not getting some kind of income,” says LWC Executive Director Ava Dejoie. “By providing financial incentives, the grant will encourage employers to develop these necessary apprenticeships and thereby create a vital pathway to job improvement.”
At least initially, LWC plans to target the health care industry’s demand for nurses by partnering with Ochsner Health System. Ochsner’s first apprenticeship program, set to launch in August at various locations across the state, will provide a way for medical assistants to become Licensed Practical Nurses.
“Chief nursing officers—the people who deal with day-to-day clinical and nursing needs—are experiencing tremendous shortages.” —Dr. Cynthia Bienemy, chairman, Louisiana Nursing Supply and Demand Council
“The ‘plus’ here is that they get to earn as they learn, so they’re not having to quit their jobs to get an education,” says Missy Sparks, Ochsner’s assistant vice president for workforce development and engagement. “They can stay at work and grow their skill competencies, thereby qualifying for a next level position.”
The apprenticeships will be open to both external job seekers and incumbent workers wanting to advance their skill set through on-the-job training. Once the program begins this summer, Ochsner will partner with area colleges such as Baton Rouge Community College or Northshore Community College for the classroom component of the apprenticeship, Sparks says.
“The job experience component will be at our facilities,” she says, adding that BRCC Chancellor Larissa Littleton-Steib has expressed an interest in her campus participating in the training.
Ochsner plans to leverage “best practices” it recently observed during a visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is known for its dynamic workforce development program. Although much fine-tuning remains, the program will likely pair each apprentice with a “journeyman” that has five or more years of experience.
“It will include a lot of classroom instruction,” Sparks says, “and then the clinical piece will take place in our health facilities with someone who is already well qualified in that role.”
Ochsner hopes to eventually merge the instructional and work experience components of the apprenticeship into one physical location.
“In that scenario, we would have people come in for on-the-job training, as well as attend class for a portion of the day, all at our facilities,” Sparks says. “That way they’re not driving from one place to the other. Everything would be in one place.”
Prior to implementation, such an arrangement would need the approval of the State Board of Licensed Practical Nurses. Next January, Ochsner plans to launch a second apprenticeship program targeting the surgical technician, sterile processing technician or pharmacy technician fields, depending upon demand.
As general growth in health care continues, in part due to the aging baby boomer population, the demand for nurses is expected to increase in tandem, says Dr. Cynthia Bienemy, chairman of the Louisiana Nursing Supply and Demand Council and director of the Louisiana Center for Nursing in Baton Rouge.
“Chief nursing officers—the people who deal with day-to-day clinical and nursing needs—are experiencing tremendous shortages,” Bienemy says.
To compensate, some Louisiana hospitals are bringing in contract nurses, sometimes from other countries. Current Ochsner expansions reflect this growth—the health care provider is constructing six new floors at its New Orleans medical complex, and is adding to the 17,000 it currently employs statewide.
“Obviously, health care is leading the state in terms of growth, and we see that across the nation,” Dejoie says. “We know there’s a huge need there. That’s backed up by all of our labor market projections.”
Unfortunately, certain obstacles hinder the state’s ability to meet increases in demand from an educational standpoint, as pointed out by a recent Louisiana Nursing Supply and Demand Council annual report.
“From 2013-14, 986 students withdrew from the LPN programs of Louisiana and two-thirds of the students withdrew because of academic performance,” the report reads. “This may be attributed to students that are single parents having to work and care for their children and having less time and energy available for study.”
Bienemy says an apprenticeship program would eliminate financial obstacles by offering on-the-job experience while also providing a source of income for the students.
“Many times, students drop out of school because they can’t continue while also taking care of their families,” she says.
To generate interest, LWC seeks to incentivize those employers who develop an apprenticeship program.
“We want to offer some additional incentives if people complete benchmarks in the program, and also reward employers for creating an apprenticeship program and for enrolling people in the program,” Dejoie says. “The idea is to plant some fertile seeds. It will help them offset some costs, as well as help demonstrate the value in this. I think the underlying thing is the employers are really the driver in this.”
Dejoie stresses that the grant won’t be limited to health care. LWC plans to encourage apprenticeships in information technology, construction and other fields. Along the way, it hopes to increase access to underrepresented populations such as women, minorities, disabled veterans, young adults and low income individuals. Furthermore, the project will supplement the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, allow the state to initiate a pilot program to develop pre-apprenticeship training and provide supportive services in the recruitment and retention of more women in the state’s Registered Apprenticeship program.
“This grant will allow LWC to expand its apprenticeship program to develop more partnerships throughout the state and incorporate a diversity of occupations,” Dejoie says, noting most of those who complete apprenticeships become employed with an average starting salary above $50,000. “By increasing access to marginalized communities, we enhance the economy and its workforce by putting people to work in fulfilling, family-sustaining careers.”