Clad in royal blue scrubs, name badge swinging from a lanyard around her neck, Victoria Torres flops into a chair, expelling a loud sigh. The exhausted 18-year-old just completed her second day as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Mary Immaculate Health Care Center in Lawrence.
“We’ve learned how to care for elderly people and how to look for signs of chronic illness,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot and have seen many different types of people and the care they need when they have to leave their homes and depend on other people to care for them. It’s a very good program.”
Torres is one of 16 recent Lawrence High School graduates in the health care pilot program of the Lawrence Partnership’s Training Consortium, an initiative that brings private and public sector institutions and businesses together to provide career paths for hard-to-fill jobs in health care, manufacturing and management.
The catalyst for the program was a 2016 Lawrence Partnership survey of the largest regional employers. Seventy percent of the 94 respondents reported hiring challenges, particularly in finding and retaining entry-level laborers. The most challenging jobs to fill are those that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree, such as the completion of a certificate program or an associate degree.
Only 19 of the respondents said they take hiring referrals from training entities and employers report difficulty finding candidates with the necessary leadership, problem solving and other soft skills required for success.
In manufacturing, this gap has led to a decline in customer service and decreased revenues as companies find it more difficult to produce enough to fill demand.
Health care providers reported unfilled jobs and a need for more bilingual employees. “There were jobs not being filled in the city with the second highest unemployment rate in the state,” says Lawrence Partnership Executive Director Derek Mitchell. “Obviously, something was missing.”
According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, Lawrence’s unemployment rate this June was 7.9 percent, behind only Springfield (8.3 percent) among cities of more than 50,000 people.
The Lawrence Partnership began cataloging existing training and placement programs, working as an engine to connect them to employers and creating new programs to fill existing training gaps.
Partners in the venture include the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development’s Urban Agenda Grant Program, the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board, the ValleyWorks Career Center, Greater Lawrence Technical School, the Lawrence Working Families Initiative, and Northern Essex Community College.
“The Training Consortium is an innovative and progressive approach to not only training students in a variety of health care roles, but it will also serve as a pipeline for Greater Lawrence Family Health Center and other health care providers throughout the region,” says GLFHC President and CEO John Silva. “We see this as a significant opportunity to address current workforce challenges in filling key positions that deal directly with our patients.”
The health care pilot program began in June. The students have chosen the CNA/HHA (home health aide) or medical assistant tracks, each of which includes a mix of classroom and hands-on clinical training at NECC and the LARE Institute. The training is sponsored by six area health care providers, and the participants commit to working for at least one year.
Many of the students are first-generation Americans or immigrants who have not had any career counseling and were unsure of what to do after high school.
“If I wasn’t here I’d be sitting at home doing nothing,” said Derling Frias, 18, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic a year and a half ago and is working as a medical assistant at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. “It is hard to know what to do in a new country, and this is a great opportunity.”
Working Families Project Initiative Project Manager Odanis Hernandez, who worked with high school guidance counselors to recruit for the program, says it creates a career pathway that young people otherwise would not have.
“Without a post-secondary plan, they’d be trying to find a job, probably working at McDonald’s, and a lot of the students have greater potential,” Hernandez says. “Many of them have other considerations, like having to help support their families that would push college or a good job further away. This gives them training and work experience and keeps them focused on the right path.”
In the CNA program, Torres took classes at NECC from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for four weeks, followed by a week of hands-on clinical training at the Penacook Place nursing home in Haverhill before beginning work at Mary Immaculate.
“When I heard about this opportunity, I just went for it,” Torres says. “I like to help people, and I took care of my great-grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, so I figured why not do something that I am good at.”
She is planning to enroll in the nursing program at NECC next spring and eventually become a radiology technician. She has already earned six college credits through the CNA program.
“I was thinking about being a medical assistant, but I had never heard of LARE Institute before my guidance counselor told me about this program,” says Wirdalis Gomez, 17, who is enrolled in the six-month medical assistant program and working at Pentucket Medical in Lawrence. “I was really excited and I like the hands-on learning, like how to check blood sugars and how to do all the computer work.”
Mariela Ramos, 18, who is working as a CNA at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, landed in the program because she wasn’t sure what to do after high school.
“It was a good opportunity, so I took advantage of it and I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “They told us during clinical that we would become emotionally attached to the patients, and I did. The patient I had felt she could talk to me, and it was nice. I like helping people.”
In the manufacturing industry, the Lawrence Partnership survey showed the deepest skills gap in the area of mechatronics — an emerging field requiring a hybrid skill set of electronics and mechanical engineering needed to operate and maintain automated machinery.
In March, NECC received a $500,000 Workforce Skills Capital Grant from the state, $350,000 of which was used to purchase mechatronics equipment that will be housed at Greater Lawrence Technical School and used in the newly developed mechatronic certificate program.
NECC also was awarded a Massachusetts Workforce Training Fund Direct Access Program grant to create a training program that focuses on management skills employers said were lacking in employees, including leadership, conflict management and effective communication.
“This consortium has tremendous potential,” says NECC President Lane Glenn. “As we reach more residents of the city and involve even more employers, our hope is to continue lowering unemployment rates, creating a talented, competitive workforce, and a successful environment for business in Lawrence.”