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Reflecting Community Composition with Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System Apprenticeship Program

Talent and workforce leaders at Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System share steps they took to diversify their apprenticeship cohorts to be more reflective of the communities they serve.

March 20, 2020

At a Glance

Talent and workforce leaders at Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System share steps they took to diversify their apprenticeship cohorts to be more reflective of the communities they serve.

Kelly Wilczak, Workforce Program Specialist, and Shana Welch, Executive Director of Talent Acquisition, Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System

To learn how Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System and others are implementing practices to increase diversity in their apprenticeship programs, read 4 Strategies for Incorporating Equity and Diversity in Your Apprenticeship Program.

Strategies for Growing Equity & Diversity in Apprenticeship Programs

In an industry like health care, remote work is rarely an option. When patients arrive at one of our hospitals, someone needs to be there to take their blood pressure and check their heart rates.

Because of the local nature of the work they do, hospitals and health systems must look to their own communities for workers. This creates a two-pronged challenge for organizations like ours, Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System.

As the population in the United States ages, recruiting an adequate number of well-qualified workers is becoming a challenge for employers across the country, and that challenge is even bigger for health systems and other organizations that primarily recruit locally.

To face this challenge, we at Mercy Health + Saint Joseph Mercy Health System have worked for more than a decade to build a staff whose demographic makeup matches that of the communities we serve. To work toward that goal, we redesigned our hiring practices to use evidence-based selection, allowing hiring managers to view candidates more holistically and removing unconscious bias from the process. More recently, we put almost 600 leaders across the western Michigan region through unconscious bias training.

Developing the Apprenticeship Program

We also looked for ways to fulfill both goals—to build a diverse and representative staff while also addressing our specific workforce needs—and we initially thought an apprenticeship program would be the perfect option. But when we began our medical assistant apprenticeship in 2016, we found that our initial cohort was not as representative of our communities as we had hoped.

To address that problem, we partnered with our local workforce board, West Michigan Works, to take a more intentional approach to reaching out to organizations that serve our community’s underrepresented populations. We reserved apprenticeship seats for candidates funneled to us from certain organizations, including the Urban League.

Taking these deliberate steps was essential—the makeup of our subsequent cohorts became more representative of the makeup of the community as a whole.

However, we learned that simply connecting individuals with opportunities wasn’t enough to achieve our goals. The new members of the community that we had brought on board through our outreach efforts were often people who had experienced barriers to employment or education and needed personalized support in order to succeed in our apprenticeship program.

Our partnership with West Michigan Works became even more critical at that stage, because the workforce board had access to funding, services, and community partners that enabled us to provide apprentices with the services they needed. In addition, career coaches from West Michigan Works visited with apprentices once a month to see if they needed additional support, such as rental assistance or help finding a safe place to stay.

These intentional efforts have allowed us to surpass our goal. Throughout the region, our medical assistants have a diversity rate of 30 percent, compared with 23 percent in the community as a whole.

Additionally, our apprenticeship program has been credited with raising awareness of health care career opportunities within the communities we serve. Officials at Grand Rapids Community College say they have noticed an increase in the diversity of people applying to the school’s medical assistant programs since our apprenticeship began.

Now that we have our apprenticeship program up and running, we are taking the lessons we learned while developing it and applying them to the creation of new initiatives. Our new career development center, for instance, will be taking an intentional approach from the start to work within neighborhoods that have high diversity, high unemployment, and high poverty. Over the next three years, we aim to bring 100 people a year into the Mercy Health-Trinity Health workforce.

Although apprenticeship is just one of many approaches we are using to develop a skilled and diverse workforce, it is a powerful tool that has demonstrated real value. We are excited about the opportunities apprenticeship has provided to our organization and to the members of our communities.

This work has been funded through the generous support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.