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With Workers Hard To Come By, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Opts To Apprentice Its Own

Todd Bookman for NHPR
Ashley Farrington, right, is training to be a Medical Assistant through a year-long apprentice program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

The term “apprentice” may conjure up thoughts of reality television and a certain President-elect, but actual apprenticeships--where workers learn skills on the job--are on the rise nationally. And in New Hampshire's health care industry, apprentices are being used as a way to fill a gap in the workforce.

Related: N.H. Construction Industry Looks to Build Workforce for the Next Generation

That approach was on display recently at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic in Concord.  A young couple with a big-eyed baby girl are in for a routine check-up. Ashley Farrington, in her magenta scrubs, goes through the checklist.  

“Is she on any medications? No allergies that you are aware of, right?” she asks.

Farrington, who is 26, is a medical assistant at the clinic. If you’ve been to the doctor’s lately, the medical assistant is the person who usually calls you in from the waiting area.

“So, we are going to get this little one down to her diaper,” she says.

Farrington checks the baby’s height, weight, and head size. Then she enters everything into the electronic medical records before passing the patient off to a doctor. She’s efficient, pleasant, and she's also an apprentice.

The term “apprentice” may conjure up thoughts of reality television and a certain President-elect, but actual apprenticeships have a long history of providing hands on training and experience, and they’re on the rise nationally.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock launched its medical assistant apprentice program in early 2014. Each class begins its training with 11-weeks of classroom-based learning.

“It was a few weeks in where it was like, oh my gosh, I haven’t been in school for so long, cause I didn’t go to college, so I had to relearn how to learn, if that makes sense,” says Farrington with a laugh.

She made it through the coursework, which included basic medical terminology and a focus on soft skills, such as communicating well with patients. Farrington is now doing hands-on training , shadowing colleagues, learning procedures and also working with a mentor.

As an apprentice, she earns $14.50 an hour, plus benefits.

Dartmouth was willing to take a risk on her and more than 150 other apprentices it’s trained to date because, well, it had no other choice.   

“We were having a very difficult time finding people to fill open positions, who had the skill-set that we were looking for.” says Sarah Currier, director of workforce development for the Lebanon-based health care system.

Currier says community colleges just aren’t producing enough medical assistants, and without medical assistants, nurses and doctors wind up spending time on tasks below their skill level and pay grade. Or, clinics simply have to turn patients away.

So rather than wait for the right applicants to come along, D-H decided to create them. It’s an idea gaining traction across the country, and it’s got a big cheerleader.

“That means more on the job training and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life,” President Obama said during his 2014 State of the Union address.

“And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready to work Americans with ready to be filled jobs.”

Dartmouth got some of that funding--$1.2 million--which covered about 40% of its costs during the past three years.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce finds that more than 500,000 people enrolled in apprenticeship programs nationally in 2016, in everything from healthcare and construction to IT and manufacturing. Jessica Nicholson, an economist with the Department, says most companies believe the investments pay off.

“They also find that apprentices have a reduced need for supervision, and they oftentimes have a greater problem solving ability, and adaptability, because they have been sort of trained in the system of the firm,” she says. “So they tend to be a good fit as an employee.”

And when those apprentices become full-fledged employees, they do so with no college debt. That was important for Ashley Farrington.

“I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I basically have done it on my own,” she says. “So it was helpful that they did have this course.”

Farrington says she’s worked lots of different jobs during her life. But now, for the first time, she feels like she has a career.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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