Building a Workforce From Within

Building a Workforce From Within

Akron Children’s removed barriers to grow its own workforce while giving underserved communities economic opportunities.

Janae Bragg remembers feeling frustrated.

As the vice president of talent management for Akron Children's Hospital, Bragg had a front-row seat to the staffing challenges that plagued the organization even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The multi-faceted problem was one of supply and demand. A 2017 economic study showed Akron had one of the largest digital skills gaps in the country and the Northeast Ohio region retained less than half of its college graduates.

With fewer people entering the regional workforce, hospital recruiters struggled to find qualified candidates for respiratory therapy, nursing, and medical assistant positions.

Trained staff ping ponged between the region's hospitals, enticed away by signing bonuses and other incentives. They’d bounce back a couple of years later to take advantage of similar incentives at Akron Children's.

“We were doing the same things everyone else was doing. We were all recruiting. We were all going to the same schools. We were all working in the same market, and we were all not getting anywhere,” Bragg said. “It was a supply and demand problem.”

Bragg’s frustration over 60 vacant medical assistant positions led to a pivotal conversation with Rhonda Larimore, the hospital’s chief human resources officer.

"What would you do if you had unlimited money to figure it out?" Larimore asked.

For Bragg, the answer was simple.

“It came down to creating the job market we needed versus the job market that was given to us,” she said.

Removing barriers to education

Akron Children’s built Career Launch to upskill its own workforce by removing financial barriers to education leading to careers in health care. In return, students would commit to working for the hospital for two or three years.

Through the fall 2023 semester, 54 students had graduated from the program with a 94% job placement rate and 50% increase in pay. Larimore said respiratory therapists have been the program’s success story to date. Between 2020 and 2024, 22 respiratory therapists graduated from the program.

“We still have vacancies, but we're so much farther ahead,” Larimore said. “We're well on our way to solving the problem.”

The nuts and bolts

The Career Launch program covers tuition, books, fees, childcare expenses, transportation, and other expenses so employees can pursue a certification or degree. The program loans laptops to students and provides a mentorship program to guide the transition to a new career path.

Career Launch allows students to seek help with an array of barriers. For example, the program has paid for car repairs and temporary housing for a student who completed a clinical rotation two hours from her home during the height of the pandemic. “That was an easy opportunity for us to step in and cover things for her. She’s doing great as a respiratory therapist now,” Russell said.

Students are also able to choose childcare providers, including family members, that meet their needs and preferences. “It’s important to have some flexibility with the students because life is going to happen. It will not be a linear process,” Russell said.

Growing employees and the community

Career Launch initially focused on in-demand, entry-level positions like medical assistants, registered respiratory therapists, licensed practical nurses, and EEG technicians. In the five years since, the program has grown to include 18 career pathways that match the hospital’s needs.

“As we started to see needs in behavioral health, we added mental health therapy. As we had needs in x-ray, we added radiology. It’s an evolving and adapting program that allows us to meet our needs and help the community,” Russell said.

The same economic study that identified the digital skills gap also found Akron ranked among the worst metros in the country for its Black unemployment rate and Black earnings. Akron Children’s actively engaged in dialogue with local government officials, workforce agencies, leaders in academia, and city support services to identify barriers preventing many from entering health care.

“We clearly have a market here of individuals who would like to work within the city, but they may not know about opportunities in health care. Many are blown away by the economic opportunity afforded through this program. It’s a pleasure to connect people with real careers,” Russell said.

Community members join Career Launch by applying for a job at Akron Children’s. After graduation, they complete a two-year commitment in their new role. Community members who want to be full-time students, such as recent high school graduates, join the Career Launch Plus program. They are hired as PRN staff members but don’t work while they’re in school. After graduation, they have a three-year commitment at the hospital.

Each semester, 50% of participants are community members and 40% are racially diverse. “We’re proud of those metrics because we're not just upskilling our current employees. Our footprint continues to grow. We’re able to provide opportunities to people across our region,” Russell said.

Mentorship and guidance

Support from the Career Launch team and peers helps students find success in the program, since many are the first in their families to seek higher education. Russell said mentorship also helps students who don’t have anyone to rally around them when things get tough.

Students are paired with Akron Children’s mentors who work in the same clinical discipline. “Our mentors help prepare students with employability skills and explain what they will experience once they graduate. They can also review their coursework or clinical challenges and provide perspective,” Russell said.

Mentors receive a quarterly bonus for participation and complete frequent professional development courses to develop their mentorship skills.

Community investment

Russell said community support for Career Launch has exceeded expectations. A family established a fund to sustain the program with an endowment of $1.6 million and a regional bank pledged $750,000 to support the program. “Lives are being changed because of these dollars, and as an organization, we’re able to create more access to care,” Russell said.

While philanthropic support is vital, Bragg said the payoff is well worth the investment the hospital made to get the program on its feet.

“It will cost you a lot less to make this type of investment than it will in advertising, paying a recruiter, and the impact open positions have on employee well-being,” she said. “Funnel those dollars into this. You'll get a lot more out of it. You'll get that loyalty, that dedication.”

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