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New ‘Earn While You Learn’ program at U.Va. Health to combat staffing shortages

The program allows people to work a full-time paid job while learning at the same time

A new employment program at U.Va. Health, Earn While You Learn, was implemented in February to combat staffing shortages, starting in the pharmaceuticals department. The program pays a full-time salary to employees, who will split time between hands-on work, classwork and training simulations. 

Wendy Horton, chief executive officer of U.Va. Health, said the inspiration for the program came from the idea of trying to make careers in healthcare more accessible to everyone. 

“Oftentimes when we talked to people in the community, they said that they didn’t know there were so many options in healthcare,” Horton said. “People think of physicians and nurses, but a medical center has so many jobs and we want to make those more visible and open to people.”

The program only requires a high school diploma or GED and recently started with pharmacy technicians. It will be expanded to include emergency medical technicians, paramedics, patient care techs, medical assistants, phlebotomists and surgical technologists throughout the spring and summer.

Veronica Desper, technician manager at U.Va. Outpatient Pharmacy, said the pharmacy was a great starting point for the Earn While You Learn program because the pharmacy  has offered an established technician training program since 2019. 

“It’s going to open many doors,” Desper said. “Pharmacy technician, as a career, isn’t discussed the same way as some of the trade programs, so those within the community are now finding out that this is an option for them.”

Pharmacy technicians perform a variety of duties, such as preparing prescriptions, processing insurance claims, tracking inventory and preparing compounded medications. 

Emergency medical technicians will be the next career to be introduced to the program. EMTs work on ambulances and respond to 911 calls, which can range from minor to life-threatening injuries. 

In addition to increases in recruitment across multiple departments, Horton anticipates positive results in other facets of U.Va. Health. 

Increased diversity in the workforce is one expected impact of the program. Without the common prerequisites of a college degree or previous healthcare experience, the program will be available to countless community members. 

“We know that diverse teams are the best teams,” Horton says. “We know that it provides the best patient care, and we want to always provide the best patient care and be reflective of our community. We want people to feel that U.Va. is welcoming and inclusive and that starts with our teams.”

The Earn While You Learn program offers an alternative route to gaining certifications in the medical field. Normally, to become a pharmacy technician, a certification program is required. Programs like this cost an average of $8,500 before paid work begins and do not offer hands-on experience.

First-year College student Nick Chu pursued the traditional path to becoming an EMT last year. Chu, who took a gap year because of the coronavirus pandemic, completed an accelerated certification program with Lifeline Ambulance in Chicago, Ill. 

Chu said the program was similar to regular school and by the end he felt prepared to be working. He worked on an ambulance in Chicago for six months until he suffered a chronic back injury after lifting a patient upstairs.

“What I was really missing from my education, which it sounds like people would get from the program, is hands-on experience,” Chu said. “We did ride alongs and stuff like that before, but it’s really the patient care and bedside manner, and then just having experience in situations that could get stressful really quickly. That’s not something that they were able to teach in the classroom.”

Even after Chu’s injury, he said that he is really happy to have the certification and it makes him feel confident and safer around friends and family who have health issues.

The planned expansion of the Earn While You Learn program for EMTs and paramedics will include the same blend of hands-on, simulation and classroom work as the pharmacy technician program, aiming to prevent on-the-job injuries like Chu’s.

Horton is hopeful that the program will encourage, inspire and motivate people for careers in healthcare.

“U.Va. Health is a really special place to be able to work where innovation happens,” Horton said. “You’re part of the University and you get to be a part of a lot of miracles that happen every day. So I think that’s why people really love working here.”


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