In a decisive move to address staffing challenges and continue to build a skilled healthcare workforce right here in the Berkshires, that county’s largest employer, Berkshire Health Systems, has launched a series of workforce development pipeline programs that are opening new career paths for hundreds of nursing assistants, medical assistants, licensed practical nurses and registered nurses. Even more importantly, the creation of those skilled jobs will expand and deliver vital healthcare services to patients and communities throughout the region.

Particularly in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals, healthcare networks, primary care providers and medical specialists of all types nationwide are being squeezed by staff vacancies and high turnover rates. BHS is experiencing those same challenges but is taking action to turn the tide, investing significant resources – about $7 million – in developing career pipeline programs in high-need clinical areas. It is an open-door recruitment strategy that not only empowers anyone interested in healthcare to join BHS but helps alleviate the burden on existing staff.

“BHS and the communities we serve are so fortunate to have a highly skilled, world-class staff of professionals serving our patients and families with unmatched compassion,” said Darlene Rodowicz, President and CEO of BHS. “But they need the helping hands and hearts of others who can join the team. That’s why we’ve created these unique pipeline programs – to grow our healthcare workforce almost organically and continue to meet our mission of advancing health and wellness for everyone in our community.”

Targeting people who are just starting out or looking for more meaningful work, the goal of the pipeline programs is to create a direct career path from education and training to full-time employment in healthcare at BHS. Many strong candidates face personal challenges that can create huge hurdles to employment, and BHS has designed its training programs to reduce those barriers and help candidates succeed. BHS covers the cost of all training in its pipeline programs and also pays the equivalent of full-time pay with benefits to the program participant while they are completing their training course. That way no candidate is required to make the difficult choice between receiving a full-time salary and completing the training requirements necessary to advance their career.

One Program in Focus: Nursing Assistant Training

One area of significant pipeline growth has been in the Nursing Assistant Training Program, which helps train and place candidates as nursing assistants at Berkshire Medical Center. Program participants receive three weeks of intensive, on-the-job training from an expert team of nurse educators and are eligible to receive full-time nursing assistant wages and benefits as soon as they begin their training. At the conclusion of their training, nursing assistants are accepted into full-time caregiving positions at the hospital. The program accepts new applicants monthly and recently announced a significant hourly wage increase, in which starting nursing assistants can earn up to $25 an hour.

“The Nursing Assistant Training Program is a unique way for students to build a path towards a rewarding career while giving back to their community, which fills them with a real sense of pride,” said Betty Kirby, BHS Director of Education. “The training we provide gives them the knowledge and tools they need to perform these essential jobs at the patient’s bedside, making an everyday difference in the lives of our patients and their families.”

Visit www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/careerpipeline to learn more about the Nursing Assistant Training Program and all BHS pipeline programs and apply today.

From housekeeping to Nursing Assistant, BHS offers continuous path of growth

Four years ago, when her brother’s girlfriend, who worked as a unit assistant at BMC, told her there were some housekeeping jobs open at the hospital, Katherine Olazabel decided it was worth a try to apply. She had already spent many years cleaning private homes around the area, so she figured that experience might work in her favor. It did. She was hired by housekeeping and would soon realize it was an opportunity that would open doors to new and better opportunities she never imagined. Today, she is a proud new Nursing Assistant with her eyes set on the possibility of one day becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse or even a Registered Nurse.

“At BHS, they always help you grow and do something different,” said Katherine. “You don’t have to stay in one position. You can be whatever you want to be and they’re always there to support you.”

Katherine had barely begun working as a housekeeper when her supervisor told her if she ever wanted to do something different, he was there to help her. She happily worked in housekeeping for about a year when she decided she might want to try something new. So she approached her supervisor one day. “I’m ready to try something different. I want to keep growing.” True to his word, the very next day her supervisor told her there was an opening in the transportation department, moving patients, supplies and equipment throughout the hospital, including bringing patients from Admissions and the Emergency Department to their rooms as well as to X-ray and CT scan appointments. She applied for and got the job.

The transportation job brought Katherine closer to the patients, and she realized how much she enjoyed interacting with and helping them every day. She also became intimately familiar with the layout and inner workings of the hospital, making her a reliable resource for other staff. As satisfied as she was with that assignment after three years, when she heard about the Nursing Assistant Training Program, she once again found herself thinking of new opportunities. And once again, her supervisors encouraged her to go for it.

“I appreciate BMC for everything they have done for me. I like people. I like working at the hospital. I like to learn. What I always wanted was a new experience, and they have given it to me many times.”

NA program is first step toward realizing nursing dreams

Even as she was growing up and certainly while she was working as a stay-at-home mom caring for her first two children at her Dalton home, Emily Zappone always had a deep respect for the nursing profession. She has personal connections to the healthcare field; her mother has served as a Certified Nursing Assistant at various facilities across the Berkshires for the last 35 years. But Emily never really imagined she would become – as of this year – a nursing assistant herself, much less be pursuing the dream of one day becoming a pediatric nurse.

It wasn’t until the birth of her youngest daughter, Lily Rose, nearly two years ago that Emily was fully awakened – abruptly so – to the essential role nurses play in saving and improving lives. Lily Rose was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder affecting the pituitary gland in her brain, her vision, her bones and muscle tone; she also has hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid deep within the brain. Today, Lily Rose is thriving and meeting her development milestones, but has serious medical issues requiring the attention of no fewer than a dozen different specialists at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, where Emily and the child’s father Zac Topper, spent countless hours the first year of her life waiting, worrying and watching with wonder as the medical team – and particularly the nurses – tended to their baby girl.

“It was the nurses who really got us through,” said Emily. “It takes a special person to work in pediatrics, to help people and their babies through some very difficult times. The nurses were the ones who made the difference.”

She was so moved by that experience that once her daughter became more medically stabilized after her first birthday, Emily decided to apply for the Nursing Assistant Training Program at BMC and was accepted last November. The combination of the BMC training and her own experience as the mother of a medically complex child has given Emily personal insights and hands-on skills she will have forever.

“Personally, I feel like it has made me a better person, just kinder and more humble. It has opened my eyes and made me feel grateful for everything I have. You see a lot of people who are so sick and are going through so much, and I say to myself, my life really isn’t as bad as I thought it was. It has made me so much more appreciative.”

Emily’s plan is to express that appreciation by someday becoming an RN in pediatrics. “I can’t wait,” she said.

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