Earlier this year we at Volta Learning Group worked with Northern Essex Community College and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education to research, develop and provide recommendations about healthcare education and training in the time of the pandemic.  Massachusetts practitioners were interested in determining ways to increase efficiency in the current system by improving alignment with labor market demand and increasing diversity and equity. As we spoke with leaders representing higher education, hospitals, and government agencies about workforce challenges, a common theme emerged. How can we use retraining to build an adaptable, resilient workforce that can flex according to market demand?

How Do We Pivot?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to adjust to uncertainty and rapid change, and that includes being able to pivot our workforce according to demand. And, by and large, colleges and employers have come through–be it serving increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients, moving workforce preparation online, or adapting regulations to ensure the pipeline of workers. That said, the pandemic also revealed areas of weakness. For example, hospitals were forced to furlough or lay off large swaths of professionals who were not directly involved in the care of COVID-19 patients, while at the same time desperately seeking nurses, nurses aides, respiratory techs and medical assistants to care for COVID patients. There is a disconnect: how do you transition vetted, experienced, loyal workers into roles where there is immediate need?

These allied and frontline healthcare professions require a variety of certifications and degrees, and are highly regulated with state and federal licensing requirements. Furthermore, most of these credentials are siloed and do not build upon one another; credits earned in one program may not transfer easily to another. Yet, many of these professions share a common skill base. For example, across the board, frontline healthcare workers are engaged in some form of data or information analysis, patient information documentation, decision-making and problem solving. These common skills could be the starting point for building bridges from one credential to another.

Use Cross-Cutting Skills to Build Stackable Microcredentials

We have thought about this conundrum and believe there is a way to employ short-term, stackable microcredentials to help to flex, upskill or reskill the workforce quickly and efficiently. As a start, we reviewed the skills associated with six pre-pandemic, in-demand frontline healthcare job titles–Medical Lab Tech, Rad Tech , MRI Tech, LPN, CNA and Medical Assistant –and added Respiratory Therapist to the list. Our analysis revealed that 20% of associated detailed work activities are common to the positions. 

Broken down further, the patient care positions–LPNs, CNAs, MAs and Respiratory Therapists share additional common skills and likewise the tech positions have their own sets of common competencies. 

Why not use these shared skills to form the basis of a series of foundational microcredentials? These could be constructed to stack both laterally and into degrees, and could be used to enable a more flexible workforce, opening up myriad career paths to multiple healthcare fields. Crucial to such a process would be partnership with the healthcare industry–including employers, colleges and regulatory agencies. By gaining industry input and approval, these stackable credentials would be designed to be portable and transferable. 

Imagine, for example, that a Medical Assistant already has more than 20% of the skills needed to become an LPN. That Medical Assistant  should be able to get credit for what she knows and be able to move more quickly into the next role. The recognition of these common skills would lead to a more efficient process for retraining and/or upskilling which would in turn result in  greater job mobility. 

This isn’t an easy fix. The idea would certainly require greater modularity in learning design than that which currently exists. We recognize these healthcare positions are highly regulated, and that unless a worker possesses the appropriate certification or licensure he or she cannot practice. However, such an approach would help to remove the silos of both the educational programs and licensure requirements. It would hone in on the necessary human skills required to perform effectively–those skills that often are not visible in job descriptions–and allow for quicker mobility. And, most importantly, learners, frontline workers, employers and frankly all of us who seek healthcare services would benefit from such an approach.