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Sue Bush
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Health Project Gets $500K Boost

By Jen Thomas
03:23PM / Wednesday, June 13, 2007

from left, Arthur Scott, Sen. Benjamin Downing,William Jones, front row Heather Boulger and Albert A. Ingegni [Photo by Jen Thomas]
Lenox - Regional healthcare officials announced this morning the receipt of a $500,000 grant to aid in workforce training for the healthcare industry.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing D-Pittsfield, Executive Director of Kimball Farms Lifecare Retirement Community Albert A. Ingengni, Executive Director of Berkshire County Regional Employment Board Heather Boulger, Executive Vice President of Berkshire Healthcare Systems William Jones, and Vice President of Human Resources at Northern Berkshire Healthcare Arthur Scott applauded the work of local partners in securing the grant and stressed the importance of strengthening the current healthcare system.

"Berkshire County is continuing to move forward and we understand that healthcare is a critical sector that we need to invest in," said Downing at the conference held in the Kimball Farms auditorium.

The funds will be used to benefit Project H.E.A.L.T.H. (Helping Employers Access Labor Talent in Healthcare), an initiative to attract and recruit new employees to the healthcare profession, enhance the skill level of existing staff, and develop a solid career ladder for the healthcare industry. A program of partner employers Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Healthcare Systems, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, and Northern Berkshire Comprehensive Care, Project H.E.A.L.T.H. hopes to address shortage of nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and other medical professionals.

"This project - these opportunities - will have very direct benefits for the healthcare partners and helping us solve a business problem of recruiting, and it will have great direct benefits for incumbent and future healthcare workers who will be able to build a career path," said Scott.

"But I think it's important that we look beyond that and remember what's really most important about the project and that's the investment in the Berkshire County community and the investment in our future," he continued.

The grant funds, part of $10 million distributed to 20 projects throughout the state through the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, will be used over the course of three years, according to Ingegni. The funds were designated for use in industry-sector projects and critical industries, as defined by the state, employ large numbers of people, have high job vacancy rates and have a high number of employers in the region.

The Regional Employment Board selected healthcare as their critical industry.

"Recruitment problems are attributed to an aging population with young people leaving the area and lack of information available to potential employees about the healthcare profession. We felt this could be reversed to some degree if young people were presented with information about the opportunities and benefits of pursuing a career in the healthcare industry," said Boulger.

Targets

Project H.E.A.L.T.H has outlined specific goals for use of the grant, developing what Boulger called "a solid healthcare career ladder pipeline."

"It is our intention to develop a powerful marketing campaign to reach out to middle and high school students to educate them about the career opportunities in healthcare," said Boulger, stating the project had set a target of reaching 1,000 students and 100 Berkshire Works Career Center clients with 25 entering a nursing assistant program and 15 acquiring internships.

In addition to recruitment, Project H.E.A.L.T.H is committed to job training for existing employees.

"Advancement from an entry level job is essential in retaining employees, so we developed a series of training opportunities to help staff advisors," said Boulger.

This training has three components: a readiness workshop, enrollment in prerequisite courses and completion of certification programs.

The readiness program is intended to prepare employers to return to academia by helping overcome such barriers as financial trouble, lack of child care, and lack of transportation. It may include tutorials in study skills, organizational skills and time management. The target for the readiness workshop is to have 80 workers complete the program.

The prerequisite program will require case-by-case determination, but could be based on the Berkshire Community College curriculum, which mandates that students take courses in English, psychology, and biology before entering a nursing program. Project H.E.A.L.T.H. set a goal for prerequisite enrollment at 50 employees with 20 credit hours each.

Certificate programs in practical nursing, lab technology, medical assistance, cardio technology and registered nursing will lead to an industry-recognized credential or academic degree, according to Boulger. She hopes to have 10 employees receive certification through this training program.

A Critical Demand

"Here and across the country, experts offer their theories and predictions on the future of healthcare and the impact associated with the aging demographic," said Jones.

With statistics stating that 66 percent of the current nursing population nationwide is aged between 44 and 63 and poised to retire in unprecedented numbers within the next 15 years, Jones said there is an urgent need to recruit new workers.

"The need is substantial, the synergy for partnering is compelling and our community demands that we do it," said Jones. "The resources being made available through this grant will allow us to continue our work at the high schools, reinforcing our commitment to develop this future workforce and our next generation of leaders."

Funding

Funding for the $10 million trust fund was made possible through legislation passed in 2006 that promotes job creation, economic stability, and competitiveness in the Massachusetts economy. The Workforce Solutions Act, heavily supported by the Berkshire delegation, made $11 million in funds available to partnerships of employers, workers, education, community-based and workforce organizations.

Additionally, the grant required that the private sector of each awardee match the amount at least 30 percent. Downing said he was impressed with the partnership between the public and private organizations.

"I think it is very important to note that the business community did more than they were required under the state sanctions," he said.

According to Boulger, the partnership of healthcare systems matched the grant 47 percent, totaling $235,000 in primarily paid release time and expertise in the development of the training programs.

"Planning now for the future of healthcare will have an enormous impact on the quality of our healthcare workforce and that will determine the highest quality of patient care in our community for many years to come," said Jones.

Jen Thomas may be reached via e-mail at jthomas@iberkshires.com or at 413-663-3384 ext. 23.

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