Support Program Helps Retention

September 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Saint Mary's Health Care has reduced turnover in entry-level positions with help from Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids Inc.'s new Occupational Performance Enhancement Network (OPEN).

At the present time, OPEN has seven clients, including Saint Mary's Health Care. The clients pay for their use of the program according to a formula based on how many employees utilize the services. OPEN is meant to help employees with barriers to employment retain their jobs, and, for some, to advance to more sustainable work.

Tom Karel, chief human resources officer at Saint Mary's, said the turnover rate in entry-level jobs has dropped from an average of 36 percent from 2000 through 2004 to just 22 percent so far this year. And, he said, "it's continuing to drop."

Saint Mary's has had about 60 employees take advantage of OPEN services, Karel said.

The program started in 2004 after The Delta Strategy recognized the growing need for retention of employees in the health-care industry and gathered several organizations together, including Goodwill Industries, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids Community College and Michigan Works, to find a remedy for high turnover.

Nicole Knights, who was hired in February as program manager, said employees can contact OPEN when they have problems at home or at work, including issues with job performance, finances, transportation or any other barriers hindering their ability to keep their entry-level job in the health field.

"There are endless reasons why people use the program," Knights said.

Ana Fumando, an occupational enhancement specialist, meets with the employee to help assess the barriers and create an action plan to overcome them. When necessary, such plans are funded by grants. The program itself received a grant from Michigan Regional Skills Alliance for $15,000, which OPEN is the process of trying to renew, and also received a training grant from Michigan Works!

"The program has been extremely successful," said Amanda Baar, marketing and public relations specialist.

OPEN is focused on helping the "working poor," those who earn too much money to receive assistance, but not enough to always make ends meet. People in this situation tend to rely on family and friends for assistance with child care and transportation, which may not always be reliable, Fumando said.

"There are a lot of people in need in that area," she said. "It's a difficult situation for them."

In addition to helping people with barriers such as transportation and finances, OPEN also can help workers advance their careers through training opportunities. Employees who are interested in getting further training can take placement tests for positions such as pharmacy technician, medical administrative assistant, medical billing and coding, or working with EKGs. Employees who qualify are placed in the appropriate training classes at Grand RapidsCommunity College. If they do not qualify for classes because they have low math skills or other education issues, they may take Adult Basic Education classes, English as a Second Language or other adult remedial classes to help them prepare for retaking the placement test.

Knights said students have taken the basic classes and returned to successfully enroll in the training classes. Sixty-seven students completed the training last year; 19 more are scheduled for the current session.

Knights said the training classes help the employees' perception of the employer.

"They really see that as a part of the employer's embracing them and caring about them," she said. "I think that really helps with their morale."

Karel said the employers have been taking advantage of both the career advancement aspect and the support for work-related and personal issues.

"This is just yet another tool that can assist them in helping employees to solve problems that can become barriers to staying in the work force," he said. "It's just part of our responsibility as good employers to make sure we're meeting the needs of our employees."

The program also benefits employers such as Saint Mary's by increasing diversity when minority entry-level employees are able to train through OPEN and then move up to higher positions.

"Helping (minorities) advance their career helps to advance the diversity initiative throughout the company," he said. "There are those of us who really feel that absolute commitment to our human capital, to our people."

Other companies should take a look at the OPEN model to help improve their workplace, Karel said.

"It's a model that other employers in the community could really benefit from looking at," he said. "It's helping people be successful in life."  

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