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Washington University banks on trend, announces medical apprenticeship program

Washington University announced a medical apprenticeship program, which will teach medical assistants to draw blood and do other clinical tasks.
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University announced a medical apprenticeship program, which will teach medical assistants to draw blood and do other clinical tasks.

Washington University has announced it will begin hiring apprentices this fall to work as medical assistants in clinics in the St. Louis region.

Apprenticeships combine on-the-job learning with more traditional instruction. The university’s announcement reflects the growing popularity of such programs in the health care industry.

Long the purview of trades such as construction or electrical engineering, the earn-and-learn model of apprenticeships is becoming more attractive to traditionally white-collar industries looking to find qualified workers, St. Louis County director of business development Bob Lee said.

“There are a number of different occupations outside of the trades that are starting to look at that apprenticeship model, because right now the economy is at that theoretical full employment point,” Lee said. “What can we do and what can a business do to get the people they need to move into those open positions?”

The medical assistants will learn to draw blood, manage health records and do other clinical tasks.

The apprentices hired by Wash U will be full-time university employees from day one. Wages start at $13 an hour and will grow as the workers gain experience and skills. St. Louis County will contribute the money needed for the apprentices’ four hours of classroom training each week from its workforce budget, Lee said.

The first cohort of up to 15 people will begin their one-year apprenticeship in the fall, according to Washington University spokeswoman Diane Williams. The university plans to continue the program, she wrote in an email.

Apprenticeshipshave gained supportfrom Republicans and Democrats alike as an alternative to the college-for-all model championed in the pastdecade. The number of active apprenticesgrew 42 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to the United States Department of Labor. While construction and military fields remain the most popular industries for apprenticeships, the nation added nearly 700 apprenticeships in health care in 2017.

“Employers are having trouble finding skilled workers, so they decided to just try the apprenticeship model, let’s grow our own, basically,” said Neil Perry, Missouri director of the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship.

There are close to a dozen health care apprenticeship programs in Missouri, Perry said. St. Charles Community College started an apprenticeship program for certified nursing assistants and St. Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis also has apprenticeship positions.

Health care is a natural fit for the learning model, said Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Washington, D.C., think tank, the Urban Institute, who has written extensively about apprenticeships. Even after years of college, most physicians and nurses say most of their learning was done on the job, he said.

However, it might be difficult to get certain professionals on board with on-the-job learning. Employers tend to think associate's and bachelor’s degrees confer a certain air of professionalism, he said.

“There are pressures from the outside to … make [health professions] more of an academic enterprise,” Lerman said.

For example, medical assistants are traditionally credentialed through training programs, often run through for-profit colleges. A workforce study in the New York Times found many who enroll in expensive medical assistant training programs don’t make enough to recoup their student debt.

“It’s taking a while to kind of turn the ship around from the standard ways of recruiting and training,” Lerman said.

Wash U’s announcement coincides with an executive order President Donald Trumpsigned on July 19 establishing a workforce council that, among other tasks, will focus on expanding apprenticeship programs in the United States.

St. Louis County officials said nearly 60 people last week attended the first informational session about the medical assistant program last; the next two sessions each have 100 people registered to attend.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.