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The problem was clear: UW Medicine needed more medical assistants (MAs) for its hospitals and clinics. The solution, however, wasn’t quite as easy to figure out.

“The medical assistant position has a high vacancy rate and there are problems with recruitment and retention,” explains Steve Marty, business operations director for UW Medicine Human Resources. “It’s a statewide problem, if not a national one.”

When the topic of MAs was brought up during a human resources steering committee meeting, UW Medicine human resources was tasked with finding a solution. A few months later, UW Medicine’s Medical Assistant Apprentice Program was born.

The year-long program offers paid on-the-job training to medical assistant apprentices at UW Medicine hospitals and clinics, with guaranteed job placement upon graduation. As an added bonus, it’s a way to help current employees further their careers within the organization.

“We loved the idea of working with existing staff to develop their skills and give them promotional opportunities,” says Susan Calero, director of UW Medical Center’s ambulatory care division, who helped launch the program. “We figured if we could ‘grow our own’ talent, why not?”

Helping internal talent bloom

For that aforementioned talent — like Teresa Nickerson — the MA Apprentice Program is an incredible opportunity.

Prior to joining the program, Nickerson had spent 18 years as a patient care tech (PCT) at UW Medical Center – Montlake. While she enjoyed helping patients, she also felt the effects of the high-stress and high-demand nature of inpatient care. Then she heard about the apprenticeship.

“One of my coworkers forced me to apply,” Nickerson recalls. “She kept telling me to not let my future slip by. On the last day to apply, she helped me fix up my 18-year-old resume, and I submitted it. I couldn’t believe it when I got accepted.”

While the apprentice program isn’t exclusive to current UW Medicine employees, Marty notes, a majority of applicants currently work within the organization.

“It’s super competitive,” Calero adds. “We’ve had an overwhelming response to how many people wanted to do it.”

Of the hundreds of people who applied for the first cohort in February 2019, only 18 were accepted — Nickerson among them. Since then, they’ve launched additional cohorts in July 2019 and October 2019, with another cohort being discussed.

How the apprenticeship works

After apprentices are selected, they’re assigned a coach, a current medical assistant who will train apprentices on necessary skills like giving injections, taking blood pressure, assisting with procedures and more.

“The program is pretty demanding,” Calero says. “Apprentices get 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and, additionally, about 10 hours per week of online classroom-type work. Then there are skills labs that they have to attend throughout the year, so it’s a heavy workload.”

Nickerson, who is slated to graduate in February 2020, says the workload was daunting but worthwhile.

“I haven’t done homework in over 28 years,” she says. “I was scared speechless — and I normally talk a lot. But this program has changed my outlook on my career in healthcare. Since I’ve been in this program, my family has said that I’m happier and seem to enjoy going to work.”

Once apprentices complete their training and pass the exam to become certified medical assistants, they’ll be placed within the UW Medicine network.

“They don’t have to go through the hiring process all over again,” Marty says. “Once they’ve successfully completed the program, they’re guaranteed MA positions.”

The program’s positive ripple effect

Aside from being a creative way to help solve the MA shortage, the apprentice program has also delivered some unexpected benefits.

“We’ve heard from some applicants that this program has really energized them and their colleagues,” Marty says. “They’re helping each other with resumes and doing mock interviews with each other. They say it shows that UW Medicine is interested in the futures of all its employees.”

As for Nickerson, who was feeling worn out from her job, it’s been nothing short of life changing.

“I hope this new role takes me even further in healthcare,” she says. “Who knows, with what I’ve learned and accomplished, I could maybe become a registered nurse one day.”


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