The Power of Work-based Learning

Published may. 01, 2012

Lisa Cortes had scraped thousands of breakfast, lunch, and dinner trays in an Ohio hospital kitchen when a supervisor recommended her for a new training program that could lead to full-time medical work with benefits. Cortes, a 42-year-old high school dropout, was so eager to trade her part-time shifts for a chance at financial stability that she let nothing get in her way—not even her fear of taking algebra or anatomy.

“It was hard to get back on the bike and pedal it,” Cortes recalled recently about returning to the classroom decades after quitting school, pregnant, at 17. “But I was on a mission. . . . I was like, I want something more; I haven’t reached my max. . . . And they were there to coach you.”

With guidance and support from a Jobs to Careers project at her Youngstown employer, Humility of Mary Health Partners, Cortes earned a GED from a career technical center. Jobs to Careers, a recently completed six-year, $15.8 million national initiative, explored new ways to help frontline health care workers gain the skills and credentials they need to advance their careers.

Next Cortes completed the year-long Pathways to a Brighter Future work-based learning program at St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, part of Humility of Mary Health Partners. She became a unit clerk, putting into action the orders that doctors write on patient charts.

Kristina Miller, workforce development coordinator for Humility of Mary Health, said the hospital’s involvement with Jobs to Careers demonstrated the value of investing in lower-skilled, entry-level workers, including transportation and nutrition services employees like Cortes. “Jobs to Careers helped us extend our focus to the other end of the organization,” Miller said. “Now we are balanced in how we approach pathways for career development.”

Jobs to Careers has demonstrated the power of a workplace-based learning approach to educating and advancing frontline staff. It not only improves the lives of current workers, but helps employers recruit new talent. As St. Elizabeth’s managers reported, the quality of their frontline workforce increased as a direct result of the Pathways program.

The central role of health care employers was a key component of all 17 Jobs to Careers sites nationwide. Now JFF and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions plan to help employers continue their critical work through CareerSTAT, a new initiative that is documenting and publicizing the business case for investing in career pathways for frontline hospital workers.

Lisa Cortes did not stay a unit clerk for long; she had ideas for her future and—thanks to Jobs to Careers—options. When the unit clerk position was phased out with the introduction of electronic medical records, Cortes was prepared. She completed more training and became a heart monitor technician—a hectic job that puts her “right in the middle of everything” on the unit, which she loves.

So far, Cortes has increased her hourly wage from $8.65 to $10.67 (an added $4,000 per year)—and she is not done yet. Now that her youngest child is finishing high school, both of them are preparing for more school. Cortes hopes to become a nurse or a physical therapist, and either job would help her pay for her daughter to go to college next year.

“If it wasn’t for Jobs to Careers, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Cortes said. “I wouldn’t have had that ladder. . . . It’s very empowering.”