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Baystate, Mercy Look to Collaborate on Workforce-development Effort
Jean Jackson

Jean Jackson says the stability of the health care industry — after all, people will always need medical care — should be an attractive draw for people looking for a good career.

As two of the largest hospitals in the Pioneer Valley — and virtual neighbors on the north side of Springfield — Baystate Medical Center and Mercy Medical Centers make no secret of their rivalry.

And competition between the two entities is even more fierce at a time when medical facilities across the region — and the nation, for that matter — face employee shortages in a number of specialties.

Respiratory, physical, and occupational therapists. Radiology, nuclear medicine, and ultrasound technicians. Pharmacists and vascular technologists. The list goes on and on, and reads like a who’s who of the backbone of a hospital.

But that backbone is a little less sturdy these days, as administrators at the two hospitals can testify. All those positions, and many others, fall under the category of ‘allied health’ — a term used loosely to encompass most health care workers outside of doctors and nurses — and workers to fill them are in short supply.

“These are critical operations for a health care facility,” said Jean Jackson, vice president of workforce planning at Baystate. “But shortages exist in these areas. It has become a very complex problem” — one that affects all providers in the region.

“We compete with each other as health care organizations to recruit for the allied health positions, and we’re all struggling. There aren’t enough people for all of us,” she continued. “So together we need to find ways to leverage our resources and open these pipelines.”

That echoes the thoughts of state Sen. Gale Candaras (D-1st Dist.) at a recent Hot Topics in Philanthropy Breakfast at Bay Path College. She told a roomful of nonprofit leaders that redundancy in services in a given region is a difficult hurdle when competing for public funds.

“When legislators are confronted with three or four nonprofits who want to do the same thing, the natural response is, ‘get together, form a coalition, and speak to us with one voice,’” Candaras said.

Baystate and Mercy are essentially taking that approach in a grant application that would fund a workforce-development partnership between the two Springfield-based institutions and rivals for talented workers.

Specifically, they have applied for a $475,000 Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund Planning Grant from the Commonwealth Corp., a quasi-public, workforce-development agency. The two hospitals would work with the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County on a two-year pilot program that would train 10 current hospital employees for higher-level positions, and another 45 people who want to begin careers in health care.

“The idea is to begin with this initial partnership, then widen it to include other Pioneer Valley hospitals,” said Kelly Aiken, a program director with the REB. “We need to develop a more regionalized plan for matching supply with demand. We want to look at the health care workforce in general and maximize the resources we have.”

Broad Scope

John McGlew, director of employment and employee relations for the Sisters of Providence Health System, of which Mercy is a part, said the shortage of qualified health care workers is not a problem that’s unique to any one hospital.

“It’s a regional problem,” he said, “and with the aging population, with the expanded life expectancies of people, we’re going to need more and more qualified health care workers. We need to find out how to prime the pump, how to get people into the pipeline who wouldn’t have been in the pipeline in the past.”

The program would employ the region’s two one-stop career centers, FutureWorks and Career Point, to find people who are motivated to pursue a health care career, as well as local colleges, including Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, that offer degree and certificate tracks in health fields. The grant funds would help pay for the education, opening doors financially for people who might otherwise feel they can’t afford to make a career change.

“A lot of people think it would be great to go into health care, but they don’t know what that entails, or they think they have to know somebody — and they don’t know somebody,” Aiken said. “We need to make sure people have this exposure to the health care field.”

Participants in the grant program would be expected to work at Baystate or Mercy after receiving the needed training, but McGlew said the partnership, if successful, will benefit several constituencies, not just the hospitals.

He compared it to CAN DO, or Collaborating for the Advancement of Nurses: Developing Opportunities, another partnership between hospital employers, area schools, and the REB, launched last year to bring more nurses into the local pipeline while supporting the career advancement of current nurses.

“By establishing these work relationships with our colleagues in the region to come up with regional solutions to long-term employment issues, ultimately it serves the communities by creating more opportunities for employment and a higher standard of living — all the while putting more people at the bedside,” he told BusinessWest.

“I think this model is going to be the wave of the future, just as CAN DO is a multi-employer approach to the ongoing need for qualified nurses.”

Healthy Start

The REB program, assuming it’s even funded, isn’t a fix-all, of course. The partner hospitals continue their individual recruiting efforts to address a growing staffing problem in many specialties — often with decidedly outside-the-box programs.

Take the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership, for instance, a series of programs aimed at children and teenagers that form a sort of pipeline to get local youth interested in medical careers — at their hometown institutions, no less — long before they get to college.

“We’re a large teaching organization, but there’s a lot of passion here because we’re all members of a community,” Jackson said. “It’s not like Boston where people work in the city and go home to the suburbs. My experience here is that people work and live in this community.”

As for Mercy, “we’re a mission-driven organization, and our mission is to be a transforming, healing presence in the communities we serve,” McGlew said. “Our advertising has been centered around why our employees work for us and why they like working for a mission-driven organization. It sets us apart from other hospitals.”

Which, in turn, makes coming together with a key rival even more impressive.

“We’re learning to work in a collaborative way between employers, educational institutions, community organizations, and the one-stop career centers,” McGlew said. “At some level, we have common goals and shared interests, but establishing a relationship of trust around these goals is not something you would have seen five years ago, or even one year ago.”

Aiken agreed. “What’s important about this program is that it’s being driven by employers,” she said. “They are saying, ‘we cannot solve this problem alone, but we need to work together to develop a pool of applicants, and make sure those coming through the pipeline have the training they need.’”

Jackson said Baystate boasts solid retention of employees and low turnover, so the main challenge is just getting people interested in joining the organization. And that often entails convincing people with skills gaps that education is plentiful throughout the region, which is why this potential grant is so important.

“These are lucrative jobs. That’s the upside,” she told BusinessWest, adding that they tend to be stable jobs, too. “Even in hard times, times of recession, people still need health care. So as an industry, we tend to be pretty resilient.”

Of course, a little teamwork never hurt.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at

[email protected]

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