Between the rapid growth of several industries in New Orleans and the city’s recent ranking by Forbes magazine as the No. 1 Brainpower City due to a surge of college graduates, the conditions appear ripe for connecting the city’s workforce to higher skilled, higher paying jobs.
However, too few residents have the skills to step into these roles, prompting one local employer to think differently about how to train its workforce for positions that offer economic security and career advancement.
New Orleans Works (NOW), a program of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, piloted a training program with Delgado Community College and the city’s largest health care employer, the Ochsner Health System, to train and hire medical assistants. The pilot was in response to high turnover rates at Ochsner, which can typically cost an employer around 20 percent of the annual salary to replace each position.
NOW connected Delgado with Ochsner to offer guaranteed jobs to people who completed a customized training program. The pilot included a group of 50 women: 20 job seekers and 30 who were employed by Ochsner but wanted to advance their careers. Recruitment began in July 2013 in partnership with Providence Community Housing and Job 1 to assist with recruitment of job seekers by hosting information sessions and helping job seekers fill out applications on-site of the housing community. By graduation day in October, 47 women had completed the 16-week training program and moved immediately into jobs earning $10.30 as a medical assistant I or $11 per hour as a medical assistant II.
The pilot was supported by a collaboration of funders, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The initial grant supported the development of the training curriculum for Delgado’s students, as well as textbooks, supplies, uniforms, wraparound services and helping with the instructors and career coaches for current Ochsner employees. The partnership has been so successful, there now is a career training pathway in place within the Ochsner system and NOW is pursuing additional funding to support a class for a new group of jobs seekers.
For Ochsner, the partnership was a win-win, improving training for medical assistants and reducing turnover. It also improved relationships with its employees, according to one of the participants.
“Before I participated in the program, I didn’t feel that I was being taken seriously,” said Jasmane Johnson, who was working as a medical assistant at the Coumadin Clinic when she enrolled in the program. “I didn’t think I had a future or a path to something better.”
Johnson said the training changed her perceptions of what’s possible.
“We learned so many things: how to handle patients better, communication skills, problem solving in teams, how to express myself better and understanding different personalities,” said Johnson, who has since completed her bachelor’s degree in health care management. “I am a leader, and I learned new and better ways of managing my team to get the best from them and the best for our patients. The class motivated me to do more and now I am developing a career path into the human relations department.”
To qualify for the training program, participants needed a high school diploma or GED certificate. Most came from other career fields like housekeeping, retail or hospitality. Some were unemployed and had been on public assistance before the training. After graduation, they no longer needed government support.
“This program worked, because it was designed with the end in mind,” said Bonita Robertson, site director for the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “We had 500 people apply for the 50 slots that we had available in the pilot.”
Robertson said the pilot revealed the need to think comprehensively about the barriers job seekers face. All of the participants were women, mostly women of color, and many had children and families. NOW worked with Delgado to provide wraparound services that helped reduce the barriers to participation, like transportation and child care. That helped participants commit to the program, which was unpaid, for the full 16 weeks.
Robertson said the graduation ceremony for the participants was moving.
“There were children, husbands and babies in arms all there to celebrate these moms and wives joining the largest employer in the state and putting them on a path to economic security,” she said. “It was great.”
Although the program was a pilot between Ochsner and Delgado and ended in October 2013, Ochsner is continuing with a medical assistant training program, and Johnson is helping to teach customer service skills to the new class.
“It’s such a privilege to share with them the things that I have learned,” Johnson said.
After surveying the pilot program graduates, NOW is exploring ways to share asset-building and financial tools and training that were expressed as needs, including information around the earned income tax credit, direct deposits, college savings funds, banking, the dangers of payday lenders and programs to promote homeownership.
Building on these successes, NOW also is partnering with the New Orleans Business Alliance and other local organizations to connect with industry sectors identified in a report by Prosperity NOLA as growing in opportunity, including “bioinnovation,” health services, transportation and trade logistics, advanced manufacturing, digital media and sustainable industries. Robertson said the medical assistant pilot taught them how to make an approach like this work in any industry.
“We know that it will take six months and financial resources to assess the competencies needed for a particular industry and build a curriculum,” Robertson said. “We are hoping to leverage philanthropic dollars to attract federal dollars and build these pathways in the industries that are part of New Orleans’ future.
“People shouldn’t have to leave New Orleans to find opportunity. NOW gives these women and their families the opportunity to stay, thrive and raise their families here. What we need to bring this to scale is a consistent commitment to collaboration at all levels – industry, education, economic development, philanthropy and community. We simply cannot change systems without collaboration.”