Tips to Bolster Apprenticeship Program Success

Flexibility, support and foundational skills are key

Caregivers rounding on a hospital unit

Apprenticeships in healthcare are a growing trend. An increasing number of healthcare organizations are utilizing learn-and-earn opportunities to help address demand challenges for skilled workers.

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“Apprenticeships create a more diverse and inclusive workforce for high-demand middle-skill positions,” says Ja’Net Colbert, project manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Apprenticeship Program. “They build a strong employee pipeline, promote a diverse and equitable talent pool, provide career advancement opportunities, improve retention and more.”

Cleveland Clinic launched its program in October 2021 in support of its skills-based hiring strategy. In 2023, the health system exceeded its apprentice hiring goal by 50% and apprentice retention climbed from 75% at the start of the year to 95% by year-end.

“We’ve had great success with our program,” Colbert says. “We’ve learned a lot along the way and made modifications to get to where we are today.”

Developing and sustaining an apprenticeship program can be challenging. For healthcare organizations seeking advice that will bolster program success, the following tips may be helpful.

One size does not fit all

Cleveland Clinic currently offers apprenticeships in pharmacy, electroencephalography (EEG), ophthalmology and polysomnography. Each follows standardized guidelines for structure, framework and management, but are individually customized to best meet the needs of the hiring department.

“It’s important to be flexible in your approach for the different apprenticeships you offer,” Colbert says. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. What works for one department may not work for another.”

Colbert cites mentorship as an example. Mentorship is vital to apprenticeship programs, but the number of mentors to mentees can vary with each opportunity.

“In some departments you will have a high appetite for mentoring, in others it will be lower,” Colbert says. “Two mentors to one apprentice, one mentor to one apprentice, it won’t always look the same. What matters is that mentoring is happening.”

Day-to-day management of the program is equally important, but that too can differ between departments.

“You need a point person within each department to manage the apprenticeship process, schedule, education, training and support,” says Colbert. “But manager styles and titles won’t necessarily be the same across the board.”

At Cleveland Clinic, departments that offer apprenticeships are responsible for establishing the apprenticeship management position. “This role requires a dedicated person,” Colbert says. “It isn’t something that can be incorporated into someone’s regular job just because they’re passionate about it.”

Other possible program differences include the number and frequency of apprentices hired, as well as the duration of the apprenticeship.

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Cleveland Clinic recruits four times a year for its pharmacy technician apprenticeship hiring 6-12 apprentices in each cohort; 2-3 times a year with 6-12 apprentices for the ophthalmic assistant apprenticeship; 2-3 times a year with six apprentices for EEG; and twice a year with 3-4 apprentices for the polysomnographic technician opportunity.

Apprenticeships are one year, except for the pharmacy technician program, which was restructured to an accelerated 18-week program.

Ensure support from A to Z

Apprenticeship programs thrive when multilayered support exists. These resources should include executive sponsors, program leaders, organizational development partners, department managers, mentors, human resources, talent acquisition representatives, credentialing leads and others. According to Colbert, every level of support is important.

Partnerships with outside organizations are also valuable. Cleveland Clinic has benefited greatly from its partnership with the OneTen coalition. Colbert attends quarterly community of practice meetings for coalition members who are forming or offering apprenticeship programs.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn from other organizations and connect with those who are walking in our shoes,” Colbert says.

Colbert takes her learnings back to the Apprenticeship Program core team, which includes apprenticeship managers, HR services leaders and others.

Through its own community of practice meetings, the core team collaborates on ways to sustain and evolve the program. Meetings highlight one key theme and attendees discuss challenges faced, lessons learned, best practices and notable successes. Benchmarks and metrics are also reviewed.

For apprenticeship managers, meetings prompt questions such as, “What do you want apprentices to know or walk away with before coming to your department?”

Foundational skills development

Anyone entering Cleveland Clinic’s program spends four of their first days on the job in foundational skills training. Through a combination of hands-on training, mentorship and immersive experiences, they gain practical skills while learning about professionalism, reliability, initiative, respect, integrity, teamwork, problem-solving and more. They also take an in-depth look at Cleveland Clinic’s culture, values and policies.

“Ninety-three percent of our apprentices say that the foundational skills training is a valuable use of their time,” says Colbert. “And 92% said they learned new knowledge from it.”

The training wasn’t initially part of Cleveland Clinic’s program.

“When our program launched, apprentice call-off rates were high and retention rates were low,” Colbert says. “People didn’t understand what it meant to have good work attendance or how missing work affects the whole team.”

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Incorporating the training has been a driving success factor for Cleveland Clinic.

“With the training, they learn how to have accountability and ABC plans,” says Colbert. “For example, if your transportation plan falls through, what is your back-up plan for getting yourself to work and your child to school?”

Wraparound services like this are known to improve retention and quality of caregivers. In the future, Colbert hopes to introduce another type of wrap-around service — a career navigator position. The one-on-one coaching role would support employees from a holistic standpoint.

“Not everyone feels comfortable telling their manager they don’t have a way to get to work,” Colbert says. “This relationship-based role would focus on addressing social determinates of work and health to help the employee be the best they can be.”

Apprenticeship programs are a proven strategy for improving recruitment and retention while creating a more engaged and satisfied workforce. When the pieces are in place, programs can successfully support healthcare organizations in diversifying workforces and meeting hiring needs with qualified, loyal employees.

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