To fix a health care workforce shortage, WA needs new ways of training

Hospitals across the country have struggled with nursing shortages and the intense demands on nurses. Above: Marianne Cintron in Central Nursing answers the phone at a nurses station at Jackson Memorial Hospital on May 16, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via AP)

“When I was a small child, I sat by the bedside and watched as my father, my aunt and then my grandma all passed away within three years, and that’s when I decided to become a nurse,” says Amanda Becker, a patient care assistant at UW Medicine - Valley Medical Center in Renton. “I noticed the nurses were the ones providing the hands-on care and helping my family, and right then and there my life purpose became to emulate them and treat every one of my patients as if they were my Grandma Melba.”


This year, Amanda is getting much closer to achieving her life’s purpose, finishing her prerequisite courses at Tacoma Community College and entering an associate degree program in nursing. Amanda found the financial resources and support she needed through an innovative labor-management training fund, which has become one of the foremost models for workforce education in the country.

As a medical center CEO and a union president, respectively, we are proud to have jointly founded the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW Multi-Employer Training Fund in 2008, along with four other employers. Since then, more than 6,700 caregivers have built their skills and advanced their careers through accessing the fund’s many cutting-edge programs. We have expanded the fund to include nine participating employers throughout Washington, and this joint labor-management effort has proved to be a uniquely successful model for meeting our state’s growing health care workforce needs.  

Currently, almost 14,000 caregivers statewide are eligible to participate and 1,300 are enrolled. Workers have access to a wide range of benefits, including direct financial support for tuition, transportation and books; help with child care for working parents; tutoring and counseling; English literacy assistance; and training in computer technology.

The fund pools contributions from participating health care employers and is jointly administered by employer and union trustees. In addition, the fund has secured more than $5 million in state, federal and private foundation grants to leverage employers’ training investments and expand opportunities for members.

Workforce training is more crucial than ever, because demand for high-quality health care is rising as Washington state’s population grows and ages rapidly. By 2040, we will have almost 2 million residents over the age of 60, representing 22 percent of the state’s population.

Our health care system is also undergoing a profound transformation, shifting to a model of delivering care in community-based clinics. Hospitals are caring for sicker patients who need much more complex care, requiring ever-evolving medical and technical skills. This has led our state’s health care industry to face a growing workforce shortage, especially in medical assistants to staff community clinics and in highly skilled hospital positions, such as registered nurses, laboratory staff and technicians.

The SEIU 1199NW Training Fund addresses this urgent need by creating a win-win-win solution for employers, patients and workers. Employers have a voice in guiding the fund so that it fulfills their specific workforce needs. The quality of patient care is enhanced with more skilled caregivers, and workers can go back to school and rise up the economic ladder.

“One of the major reasons I chose to work at Valley Medical Center was because they had education benefits. There’s no way I could have done my nursing prerequisite course work without the training fund,” says Amanda. “I’m raising three kids, and my husband and I are stretched really thin trying to pay for our mortgage, insurance, power and groceries. I had to cut back on my hours to go back to school, but the training fund paid for almost all of my tuition and books. I’ve only had to pay about $400 out of pocket in school costs, which has been an absolute lifesaver.”

The training fund is currently exploring ways to expand programs to anticipate and meet Washington’s future health care needs, including the recent launch of a medical assistant apprenticeship program. This is the first multiunion, multiemployer health care apprenticeship program in the country, and will create career pathways into hard-to-fill positions throughout the medical field.

The program will increase health care equity by ensuring that more people of color are represented in the profession, and can provide culturally sensitive care to patients in their own communities. Unlike the traditional educational structure, which is classroom heavy and can be a financial burden, apprentices will receive 80 percent of their training on the job.

Through this “earn-while-you-learn” model, apprentices will work directly with patients under the guidance of a mentor, and are guaranteed a position at the end of their training. The training fund is starting the medical assistant program in order to support fast-growing clinics, and also is working on creating apprenticeships for other in-demand job classifications, such as pharmacy techs, medical records coders, sterile-processing technicians and behavioral health workers. Ultimately, these training opportunities are about removing the many barriers facing people pursuing their career goals in health care.

“Being a nurse is about having a compassionate heart, and giving one’s self to others when they’re at their most vulnerable,” says Amanda. “The training fund has given me the support I need to realize my life’s dream, so I can support my family and provide the highest quality nursing care to families in my community.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Rich Roodman

Rich Roodman has been the CEO of UW Medicine-Valley Medical Center in Renton for the past 36 years.

Diane Sosne, RN, MN

Diane Sosne, RN, MN is the president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, Washington state’s largest union of nurses and healthcare workers.