Lorien Columbia Director of Nursing, Alfred Sesay, demonstrates how to use a lift transfer wheelchair with student. (Lorien / Mary Keagle)

For Cherie Carter, Lorien Health Services’ joint effort with the Howard County Public School System to build the nursing talent pool via the HCPSS’s Apprenticeship Maryland Program has been hard work, as is the case in any industry that has a pronounced need for more skilled workers.

Like many states, Maryland is dealing with a major nursing shortage, as it has just 8.08 nurses per 1,000 people, which is below the 9.22 national average. That ranks Maryland in the bottom 10 states, according to NurseJournal.

But that’s not to say that sorely needed progress hasn’t been made, either, as the students who are learning on the job (and in the classroom) often become Certified Nursing Assistants and Geriatric Nursing Assistants, and have already gone on to other health care jobs.

Numbers up

Carter, the director of centralized recruitment at Columbia-based Lorien described the progress as an ongoing effort for three years. She said she met Stephanie Discepolo of the HCPSS in early 2022 via the Maryland Department of Labor at the start of the partnership.

“We soon signed 10 apprentices for the summer program,” said Carter, “as we looked for every way to build the workforce.”

Today, two of those apprentices from the first cohort (Class of 2023) are in college and four are still working for Lorien; in the second year (Class of 2024), the program accepted 10 more in Howard, six in Carroll and six in Harford counties. Preparations for next year’s class are well underway.

The effort is active at three of Lorien’s four Howard County facilities: Columbia, Elkridge and its newest, Harmony Hall. “For Howard, the 2024-2025 school year we had more than 60 interested students,” said Carter, “of whom we prescreened 37 for our human resources team before they accepted 20 who work throughout our system.”

The investment for Lorien comes via classroom instruction ― at $1,200 per semester, per student ― then with hands-on experience working at its locations.

One thing Lorien does well is building from the ground up, Carter said. “That way, we get the best version of the apprentices in our effort to staff our company while investing in the future of nursing.” She added that Lorien also has 60 additional CNAs who are not in the apprenticeship program but have also expanded their learning and moved into different sectors of the health care industry.

She made the point that interviewing high school seniors isn’t like interviewing college graduates, especially when it comes to maturity level. “Working in a nursing home can be overwhelming and scary,” Carter said, “but we stress that it can also be very rewarding in the relationships and wisdom gained from working with seniors.”

Full program
One way to gauge the success of the program is that there has “been more interest than available spaces,” said Discepolo, HCPSS program coordinator. “Lorien has already hired all 20 students to start the program next year, which is all they can handle” given the number of available mentors, as “they all work on the same shift.”

The structure calls for students to work 20 hours a week on weekdays from 7-11 a.m., then attend high school and take their basic courses. “They start at $15 per hour, get raises, get certified and are then ready to work, hopefully for Lorien,” Discepolo said, “though they can move anywhere in the industry.”

She said there has been “great interest among students who want to get into health care and the Health Professions Academy is the most popular,” she said, “and while it offers various pathways, most of the students opt for the CNA track.”

The program has already proven beneficial to both partners. “Lorien has a high need for nurses and it provides a perfect track to success,” said Discepolo, adding that “The mutual goal is to grow their workforce and place our students, who can then decide if they want to become registered nurses” or move into another track in the health care universe.

Strong support

What makes the apprentice program unique “is that the students get a level of support that wouldn’t be otherwise available, with a mentor, evaluations, grades,” etc., Discepolo said.

Such efforts are getting noticed statewide, too. “We always support new initiatives between health systems and colleges, community colleges, secondary schools,” etc., said Lou Bartolo, president of the Owings Mills-based Maryland Nurses Association, “as well as innovation to build a workforce for the next generation of health care providers, as CNAs often move up to other health disciplines.”

The MNA is also supportive of wider efforts, such as the new law Gov. Wes Moore just signed, the Maryland Pathway to Nursing Pilot Program and Advisory Committee, “which will soon start in two geographically diverse areas of the state,” said Bartolo. “Hopefully, it will eventually be implemented statewide.”

Today, the plan at the HCPSS is to stay the course in the CNA program, as well as continue presenting similar offerings in other industries like electrical, plumbing, information technology, etc. Back at Lorien, which has a staff of “approximately 1,500 employees” throughout its system, said Carter, with the head count for nurses hovering “around 200.”

While she’s hoping the number grows, “I don’t know if you can put a number on our needs,” she said. “We’re always going to need CNAs and will continue to build on this program.

“That’s because there will always be a need for this skill set,” she said. “That won’t be changing.”

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