Howard Community College has expanded its workforce development offerings with the addition of two new apprenticeships, one for licensed practical nursing and one for surgical technicians.

Punctuating the launch of these programs with a ribbon cutting to mark the opening of a brand new surgical technician skills lab, HCC President Daria Willis said the programs will address an existing critical shortage of health care workers that was accelerated and intensified by the pandemic.

“This allows students to focus on studies while simultaneously getting hands-on experience to enter career pathways sooner,” Willis said. “The hospitals can start working with apprenticeships much earlier and grow them into the workforce that meets their mission, their culture and their needs.”

Five local hospitals have signed on as partners in the new apprenticeship programs: the University of Maryland Medical Center, Howard County General Hospital, Ascension Saint Agnes, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

“Our hospital is continuously in search of new talent, and this gives us a new and very positive avenue to recruit [that talent],” said Chelai Green, senior director of Perioperative Services at HCGH. “This program creates a solid starting point, and we genuinely appreciate the opportunity to be part of it.”

New skills lab

HCC officially introduced its surgical technician apprenticeship program in July, and its first cohort began studies in early November with 19 students. Hospital employer partners fund their apprentices’ college tuition and fees while offering each a paid, entry-level position.

Housed in HCC’s Kathleen Hetherington Hall, the new surgical technician skills lab introduces apprentices to clinical skills in a safe, hands-on environment using high-fidelity manikins that portray patients with medical conditions requiring surgical intervention.

The space features two simulation-based operating rooms packed with the same tools and technologies used by professionals working in hospital operating room teams.

Instructors will guide apprentices through core competencies that include operating room set up, preparation and transport of surgical patients, and guidelines for providing clinical assistance to surgeons and nurses during surgical cases.

Surgical technicians are responsible for adjusting lighting and operating room equipment prior to and during cases, securing and handing off surgical instrumentation, positioning and holding retractors, cutting sutures, and taking inventory of supplies prior to and at the closure of operative cases.

Jennifer Bukowitz, director of Allied Health for HCC’s Continuing Education and Workforce Development department, said the apprenticeship program expansion and the new lab, which took eight months to construct, were part of a larger list of improvements made possible by a $250,000 grant awarded by the Maryland State Department of Labor.

“The surgical technician course is 13 months long with a team of five instructors, and the last three months will be based in a clinical setting,” she said.

Mike Hayden, lead coordinator for the instruction team, added that surgical technicians will be able to sit for the National Center for Competency Testing exam upon completion of training.

“We want them to be certified because it makes them more marketable and increases their opportunities in other areas of hospital operations, including administration and education,” Hayden said.

LPN Program

Under the three-year LPN program, which includes a one-year nursing core section, students will earn certification while working in their apprenticeship.

“What we’re seeing is that some hospitals are taking people working in entry level positions like facilities, patient tech, and patient transport and putting them through this apprenticeship program so they can grow their competencies and become an LPN, creating a pathway for them to advance,” said Minah Woo, vice president of Workforce, Innovation, and Strategic Partnerships at HCC. “That’s a population that allows hospitals to grow their workforce from within.”

Only three students are enrolled in the program at present, “but we expect that program to grow,” Woo said. “We’ve been inundated with requests from both students and employers.”

Theresa Forgét, executive director of Human Resources for HCGH, said the COVID pandemic has produced a staffing crisis never before seen in health care.

“The nursing shortage throughout the state of Maryland is enormous, so creating Allied Health professionals and opportunities for our employees to be able to finish school while still working with us has been a tremendous asset,” she said. “We’re adjusting our care model to welcome LPNs into the hospital because everything is changing. Hopefully we’ll be able to support these professionals to later become registered nurses.”

Woo said the new apprenticeship programs came about in part because the college is seeing more students attending part time because they work full time jobs to make ends meet, taking longer to finish studies and start health care careers, while employers with workforce shortages can’t wait for employees with degrees and years of experience.

“We brought these two needs together,” she said. “Preparing these students gives them not only a jump start into their careers, they are no longer being left behind.”