Akron Children’s Heads Off Worker Shortage

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Marquisha Mitchell had long dreamed of becoming a respiratory therapist, but life just kept getting in her way.

She was already working and enjoying her job as a pharmacy tech at Akron Children’s Hospital but she knew she wanted to go into the respiratory field if she ever got the opportunity.

“I had been waiting for years and years for the right time to finally go back to school … and then this opportunity came along for the Career Launch program at Akron Children’s Hospital,” says Mitchell.

As long as she continued to work for the hospital system, even just part-time while she attended school, and agreed to continue to work for it after she graduated, the Career Launch program was willing to pay for her tuition and even help her deal with the obstacles and stresses created by going back to school.

“It matched up and lined up perfectly for me,” says Mitchell.

Even before the pandemic and labor shortages, Akron Children’s Hospital began the program to help transition more people into health care jobs and allow them to progress in their careers.

Career Launch goes beyond the tuition assistance other programs might offer by helping students cover the costs of child care, transportation, technology and other school supplies needed to complete school.

“Our goal was to remove all of those barriers in order to get people into the workforce and into the positions that have great career mobility upwards,” says Rhonda Larimore, chief human resources officer at Akron Children’s Hospital.

The workforce development program was launched in 2020 with only three programs – medical assistant, licensed practical nursing and registered respiratory therapy. Larimore says the success of the program has allowed the hospital to expand it to 12 programs.

Most are two-year programs, although the medical assistant program can be completed in 18 months, which Larimore says allows students to start working full-time sooner at more than $16 per hour and still have the prerequisites to continue on if they want to progress into nursing or another area.

The program is geared toward current hospital employees and those with an interest in the health care field looking to get a foot in the door.

While attending school, students can work full-time, part-time or in a pool as an on-call employee throughout the Akron Children’s system.

Additionally, the newly developed Career Launch Plus program allows those students able to attend school full-time to use 10 hours of online professional development training each month as their work requirement.

Career Launch requires a commitment to work for Akron Children’s Hospital for at least two years following graduation.

Larimore notes it has created a pipeline from the community to the entry-level positions in the hospital system and will help to solidify the future diversity of the workforce.

“The goal of the program is upward mobility,” Larimore says. “When you think about the diversity aspect. We want to make sure we are embracing the communities that we serve … Every employee in this program, you always have the ability to keep going.”

Right now, the program is 38% diverse, says Larimore and it is important that the workforce represents the communities where the medical buildings are located.

“Our areas, Mahoning Valley, Akron … they are very community driven,” Larimore says. “When we developed a program, we wanted to make certain it was community focused.”

That included partnering with community organizations already geared toward assisting with upward mobility, such as a group working to help single mothers provide their families with more stability. Those groups inform prospective students about the opportunities available to them through the Career Launch program.

Instead of struggling to find talented, interested people, Larimore says the program has been overwhelmed with applicants. The current challenge is finding an employment match to get all the qualified applicants started.

 “There’s a balance between removing barriers and making the program easy,” Larimore says. “Education is never easy. We still want to make sure we are putting the right people into the program and setting them up for success.”

Students get a chance to job shadow someone already in that field at the  hospital, so there are no surprises later.

The University of Akron has partnered with the program, offering classes to get students caught up with the knowledge needed to pass the entrance exams and basic classes for the program.

Students complete their required general studies classes with local colleges and do clinical training through Akron Children’s Hospital.

With many health care fields experiencing major employee shortages, Larimore believes Career Launch allows the system to be ahead of the curve in filling its labor needs.

So far, she says, 15 have graduated from the program – three in the medical assistant program, seven licensed practical nurses and five respiratory therapists. There are currently 66 people in the program, with graduations slated for this summer to two years from now.

The nationwide talent shortage, Larimore says, is particularly acute in the area of registered respiratory therapists. Retaining talented people can be difficult when other hospital systems also are looking.

“Unless you solve the supply and demand problem, you don’t solve the war for talent,” Larimore says.

The Akron Children’s program has a 95% retention rate, Larimore says. Part of that success results from allowing students to take up to one semester off if they need to because “sometimes life gets in the way,” she says.

Gaining the needed training can be difficult and two years is a long commitment but the program aims to remove as many barriers as possible.

For Mitchell, having a mentor assigned to her through the program made a huge difference. She was partnered with a mentor from the Boardman campus near her home, who was able to see her grades, help her find tutoring if she needed it, assist in setting her goals for the semester and encourage her when doubts crept in.

Mitchell started the program by working 32 hours per week as a pharmacy technician while going to school at Stark State College in Canton. As she progressed in the program, it eventually became too much and she was able to drop her working hours to 24 hours per week.

Despite living on her own and the financial obstacles to attending school, Mitchell was encouraged to continue pursuing her goals through the program. She says her adviser helped her stay motivated during the long days when she was taking classes, driving back and forth to North Canton and doing eight-hour clinical shifts in a hospital.

“Any obstacle that you think that you would face, the Career Launch is a great program that can help you with anything,” Mitchell says. “They are there to help you and support you.”

After completing the program, Mitchell says she is happily working as a respiratory therapist on the Akron Children’s Hospital NICU floor at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

“It’s about setting people up for success, but in the end, they have to have the drive,” Larimore says. “There’s the sweat equity of working toward what you want to achieve. It’s not all like we hand you the program. You’ve got to want the program. But with the retention rate, we do a great job. We’re really proud of this program.”

Pictured at top: Marquisha Mitchell became a respiratory therapist for Akron Children’s Hospital after completing the system’s Career Launch program. She worked as a pharmacy technician part-time while attending school.