The Secret Class at Harvard's Teaching Hospital

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Facing “pretty serious shortages” in some allied health professions got officials at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston thinking: Why not train some existing employees so they could get high-skilled, higher-paying jobs?

The medical center already offered English as a Second Language (ESL) but knew more needed to be done to prepare under-skilled employees for jobs including surgical technologists, medical lab technicians, pharmaceutical technicians and patient care technicians who are acute care certified nursing assistants, according to Joanne Pokaski, director of Workforce Development at BIDMC.

In 2007, BIDMC’s Employee Career Initiative (ECI) program began offering free courses and books, funded through a $500,000 grant from the Boston Foundation.

“We learned a lot of our employees didn’t have the minimum skills needed to take on skills like this,’’ explains Pokaski. “A lot of people needed extra math help, some needed reading and English.”

The medical center contracted with nearby Bunker Hill Community College to bring courses on site for employees because it wanted them to start getting the skills “in a very safe environment, at the workplace,” she says. Employees were given the option to take courses in pre-college reading, math and English as well as some basic college level science courses like biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology.

“This initiative said we want more people to move up and take advantage of pipeline opportunities,’’ says Pokaski. “It’s a way to get more people engaged and take advantage of an academic track.”

BIDMC has a career academic advisor who provides the same assessments needed for community college right on site and then creates an academic plan for the employee. Generally four programs are offered in the fall and spring. To date, 756 employees have enrolled in the EIC. In 2013, 65 employees enrolled in at least one pre-college course; 43 employees enrolled in at least one college-level course; and 49 employees enrolled in the EIC program were promoted to new roles, with an average wage increase of $2.11 per hour or 13 percent, she says.

The hospital has now surpassed the grant amount and is providing funding. “This is a regular component in our ongoing budget and it’s a sustained project,’’ says Pokaski. As a result, they have reduced turnover and vacancies in certain jobs and increased job performance, she says.

“We are achieving what [we] set out to do. This is helpful for our employees, but it also meets our business needs at the same time.” Departments within the hospital continue to come to them when they’re having challenges finding new employees, she says, “so we’re constantly building new employees and the initiative gives us a nice base of employees who are more ready to take advantage of advancement opportunities.”

Some of the jobs require computer proficiency, like medical coders and registration, but Pokaski says more often, they tend to focus on offering “basic skills for people who don’t get on a computer at all.”

It’s not just employers looking to enhance foundational literacy for underskilled adults. The state’s community colleges have also taken an active role in offering courses. Information technology is one of the areas of focus for the Massachusetts Community Colleges and Workforce Development Transformation Agenda, which seeks to make college credentials more accessible to people lacking foundational literacy, according to Jennifer Freeman, project manager.

The MCCWDTA is funded by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration and has supported the development of programs across all 15 community colleges in Massachusetts. Bunker Hill and Roxbury Community College in particular, “are accelerating that process of [offering] foundational math and literacy skills so people can be successful in technical training,’’ says Freeman.

Boston is one of the cities that was chosen for participation in the national Broadening Advanced Technological Education Connections (BATEC) program, headquartered at University of Massachusetts Boston. The goal is to reach into communities to get underrepresented minorities onto college campuses to study computer science and information technology, says Deborah Boisvert, executive director.

“Part of that mission is to figure out how to … serve people who need to get on that pathway that may not have the opportunity otherwise,” she says. BATEC offers The Bridge To Community College Program, which serves “nontraditional learners, embedding community college classes in community-based organizations alongside tutoring and social services,’’ according to the program’s site.

“We feel that unless we help them understand that college is an option for everybody then we’re not doing our job,’’ says Boisvert.

Other Boston-based programs for under skilled adults include tech goes home and the Timothy Smith Network, whose site says “we see technology as a tool that creates possibilities, inspires action, and changes lives.” The goal of the Timothy Smith Network is to provide access to computers and technologies to people of all ages in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. In 2013 there were 27 Timothy Smith Centers offering community-based technology education.

Tech goes home targets the most vulnerable populations and focuses on removing barriers to technology adoption and Internet access in Boston and around the country. TGH works in the Boston Public Schools and within the community, offering technology tutorials and courses in libraries, community centers and public housing developments. The organization also offers 15 hours of free, hands-on technology and Internet instruction to small business owners who serve low-incomes neighborhoods and who have little to no technology skills or access.

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