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U.Va. Health ‘Earn While You Learn’ program grows and expands opportunities

The program aims to increase its capacity as well as its accessibility to the Charlottesville community

<p>While the Earn While You Learn program began in the pharmaceuticals department of U.Va. Health, it will expand to include technicians in sterile processing, radiology, nursing, surgical scrub and paramedics.&nbsp;</p>

While the Earn While You Learn program began in the pharmaceuticals department of U.Va. Health, it will expand to include technicians in sterile processing, radiology, nursing, surgical scrub and paramedics. 

The Earn While You Learn employment program at U.Va. Health is expanding its scope to include more opportunities for non-native English speaking participants as well as training for additional healthcare positions. First implemented in February, the program provides an opportunity for members of the Charlottesville community to jumpstart a career in healthcare without a college degree or previous healthcare experience.

The program received a $50,000 grant from the Truist Foundation in September to include opportunities for non-native English speakers. The Truist Foundation partners with nonprofit organizations like U.Va. Health to support excluded and underserved communities. 

Beth Mehring, head of the Earn While You Learn program, said this development since February has been extremely fast-paced and has involved debunking myths about healthcare throughout the process, as people often believe they need to have a lot of experience in healthcare, or they do not think about applying to U.Va Health as a career option.

“In some ways, we’re sort of building the airplane as we’re flying,” Mehring said. “We’ve been learning about how we best meet the needs of the community and how we can best integrate into the [Charlottesville] community to help understand its needs.”

Currently, the program includes training for pharmacy technicians, emergency medical technicians, certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists and certified medical assistants. Over 40 program participants began training in the various programs this summer, while the incoming fall classes include over 65 new trainees. 

Abdulalkarim Awwad, a participant in the pharmacy technician program and former CVS employee, began his training this summer and explained the appeal of working for a system like U.Va. Health.

“U.Va. hospital is this huge educational place,” Awwad said. “I couldn’t say no to it.”

Awwad’s experiences in healthcare at U.Va. Health have inspired him to return to school in the future to pursue a career as a physician’s assistant.

“The educational programs that they’ve put me into have been spectacular,” Awwad said. “Working at a pharmacy, especially working at U.Va. Hospital, kind of made me realize how much I enjoy medicine.”

Awwad said that based on what he has learned from U.Va. Health and his interactions with other technicians, he highly recommends the program to anyone considering a career in medicine, even if pharmacy is not what they intend to do forever. 

Veronica Desper, U.Va. Outpatient Pharmacy technician manager, said people who have not considered healthcare as their first choice of employment in the past have been attracted to the program as well, increasing the overall number of applicants. 

“It's attracting a lot of applicants,” Desper said. “Just the increase in our applicant pool has been a win for sure.”

As a result of the increasing interest in the program, Mehring and others involved in the program have been looking for ways to expand. The new Truist Foundation grant will allow them to put their ideas into action.

“Part of this grant will be used to help support outreach and marketing,” Mehring said. “We want to keep people coming in and help share the opportunity.”

Planned expansions for the program include training technicians in sterile processing and surgical scrub, as well as training participants in radiology, nursing and paramedics. The expansion also includes plans for those eventually working towards two-year degree programs, such as respiratory therapy.

Mehring explained that key entry point roles outside of the program are also an important potential area of expansion. Entry roles in nutritional services and environmental services could aid non-English speaking participants in developing their language skills. After English language exposure in these roles, participants could begin training in the Earn While You Learn program. 

The other part of the grant will go towards building the program to help program candidates develop English as a second language. Piedmont Virginia Community College will collaborate with U.Va. Health to achieve this through its Network 2 Work program, which assists in language development. 

“We want to be able to not only get someone through the door, but help them advance both written and verbal language so that they can advance their career once they get here,” Mehring said.

Mehring said U.Va. Health recognizes that internationally relocated people, such as refugees, also need opportunities once they arrive in the area. She hopes that they will be able to benefit from the program and its constant expansions as well.

Both Mehring and Desper explained that the program not only benefits the U.Va. Health system and the community, but also patients, as stable staffing allows patients to be taken care of more efficiently.

“I think things are going to continue to evolve at a very rapid rate,” Mehring said. “We are continuing to build relationships, and it's been a great collective growth.”

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