County hospitals, colleges join forces
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is one of three local health-care providers participating in a new workplace training program with area colleges.

County hospitals, colleges join forces

Health Care Collaborative Workforce Training Project seeks to recruit, train, and retain more health-care staffers

BRATTLEBORO — Job-seekers who visit the Brattleboro Retreat's website are greeted by an announcement - in large font, highlighted in green - of a $4,000 hiring bonus for inpatient registered nurses willing to work evening and night shifts.

Nevertheless, there are 19 nursing positions advertised on the site.

“We have had a very difficult time hiring as many RNs as we need,” said Jeff Corrigan, the Retreat's human resources vice president.

The Retreat is not alone among area health-care providers. That's why Windham County's three hospitals are teaming up with six area colleges to create a new collaborative workforce-development project aimed at finding enough people to fill job openings and then keeping those positions filled.

The idea is to connect current and prospective hospital employees with the training they need. And if those educational opportunities don't yet exist, college administrators will try to create them.

“The initiative between the six colleges is a fantastic idea,” said Chris Lackney, human resources director at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend. “When you put all the schools' educational offerings together, the community will be able to meet the educational needs of all three hospitals as well as other health-care facilities.”

There has been, over the past few years, increasing attention paid to southern Vermont's economic challenges. A report last year by the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone Committee highlighted an aging population and stagnant growth, while also proposing solutions.

Better coordination of workforce and education initiatives was one of that report's recommendations. The authors also pushed for identification of “clusters,” defined as concentrations of related businesses “that provide the greatest promise for growing good-paying jobs in southern Vermont.”

Focusing on growth of the medical workforce via an educational collaborative might satisfy both of those recommendations. Health care is one of the region's strengths: The Retreat and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH) are among Windham County's largest employers, and Grace Cottage Hospital - though much smaller than those two institutions - is a critical asset in the West River Valley and beyond.

The region's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, completed in 2013, lists health care as one of the area's “competitive advantages” and “significant opportunities.”

Expanding health services also is mentioned as one way to combat the loss of hundreds of jobs at Vermont Yankee.

But it's difficult to expand when there aren't enough workers to meet current demand. Corrigan said the Retreat may have particular trouble filling its open positions because of both the size and the speciality of the facility's mental-health workforce.

“We're a pretty big specialty hospital in a relatively small rural area,” Corrigan said. “So there's a natural mismatch. Most psych hospitals of our size, you would see in major cities.”

The Retreat needs registered nurses, and so does Brattleboro Memorial Hospital - along with other health-care workers. There are 13 nursing-related positions listed on the hospital's website, and Human Resources Vice President Robin Heald said there are multiple factors - including education, housing, and cost of living - behind the workforce issues at BMH and Windham County's other hospitals.

Grace Cottage, the state's smallest hospital, has 10 health-care staff vacancies and is “always open to per diems,” Lackney said.

Per diem workers are paid by the day.

Lackney added that “there's an ongoing need in the community for continuing education and skill development for clinical staff.”

The new Health Care Collaborative Workforce Training Project is designed to address health-care recruitment and the training issue cited by Lackney while also boosting the area's post-secondary schools.

It brings the three hospitals together with what's known as the Six College Collaborative, formed a few years ago by Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College, Union Institute & University, Marlboro College, Landmark College, and World Learning's School for International Training.

The colleges have been working together on cross-registration and internship programs thus far. The idea to partner with hospitals came initially from a conversation between Bill Lax, dean at Union Institute & University, and Roger Allbee, Grace Cottage's chief executive officer.

That discussion included talk of the area's growing needs for medical, mental health, and substance-abuse treatment.

“Roger was saying that this is a need of the entire community, and all of the hospitals are faced with addressing these issues,” Lax recalled. “The dilemma is being able to provide services to all of the people with these needs.”

The health care collaborative, which also involves Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., has evolved quickly.

Last month, it was named one of Windham County's “vital projects” by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, better known as SeVEDS. The collaborative's pitch to SeVEDS sums up the effort this way: “This is a human capital project, rather than a bricks-and-mortar one.”

The plan is to offer local hospitals “professional training geared specifically for their existing and future staff,” organizers wrote in their SeVEDS proposal. In addition to traditional college classes, that training could include professional-development courses, workshops, and in-services.

The project is starting with an assessment of current health-care-related courses available in the area, and a list of such offerings will be available at Hospital human resources administrators will use that list both as a reference, and as a starting point for an educational wish list.

“H.R. directors would be determining, what are the needs of existing staff and future staff? What causes positions to remain unfilled and under-filled?” Lax said. “If they didn't find courses that are available, and the existing trainings didn't meet their requirements, we would talk with them - how can we develop something that would meet their needs?”

BMH's Heald said the initiative's early discussions have provided an opportunity to “identify commonalities and formulate plans for further collaborations” among the hospitals.

“I applaud the colleges' decision to collaborate for the educational needs of the community,” Heald said. “It's all about shared resources being applied in the most efficient manner possible to achieve a common goal.”

At the Retreat, Corrigan praised the collaborative as a “promising approach” to workforce issues. He's hoping not only to find and retain more nurses, but also to better prepare the facility's mental health workers - for whom there is no specific course of study among area schools.

Mental health workers “are really the backbone of our organization. We employ about 280 people in that one single role,” Corrigan said. “We're hopeful that the local colleges would be able to develop a program for people interested in that field.”

While the health care training collaborative is off to a strong start, a big question is whether there will be enough resources for it to continue and grow. Organizers wrote in their SeVEDS presentation that “the greatest expense, at present, is time,” but that is expected to change.

“We hope that inclusion in the SeVEDS list will provide endorsement that will help us to secure needed funds in the future,” collaborative leaders wrote. “The cost of some trainings may be covered by the hospitals' tuition-reimbursement or continuing-education policies. Other trainings might be paid for by future grants.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates