VA offers School at Work

Program helps entry-level employees who need computer skills to advance

Ruby Aguilar worked as a medical coder at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, but after a few years, she realized she was in a dead-end job.

“Most people in management were younger than me and weren’t going to retire,” Aguilar said. “There was no way to advance, so I had to look outside.”

Rather than leave the Department of Veterans Affairs, however, she enrolled in the hospital’s School at Work (SAW) program, which prepares entry-level employees for college or career advancement within the hospital.

Through classroom and online courses, the eight-month program teaches computer skills, math, reading, medical terminology and ethics. Catalyst Learning, a workplace education and e-learning company, runs the program for the hospital. After taking courses, workers can often advance to clinical positions.

Most employees who sign up for the program work in housekeeping, maintenance, food service or clerical positions. “We think of these folks as the forgotten majority,” said Lynn Fischer, founder and president of Catalyst Learning.

In September 2004, Aguilar became part of the first SAW graduation class at Houston’s VA medical center. She has advanced to a position as a program support assistant. The workplace program gave Aguilar confidence and many of the computer skills she needed for the new job, she said.

“I had certain computer skills, and I had been to mini-classes, but I am hitting it hard core now,” she said. She is continuing her computer training at the hospital with courses in Microsoft PowerPoint and Outlook.

Like other federal agencies, the VA faces a wave of retirements in the next few years, Fischer said. Administrators at the Houston medical center knew many employees would be retiring, and they didn’t want to overlook the pool of dedicated younger workers employed at the hospital when they began choosing replacements.

“This helps them tap the potential of these employees, who they know are dedicated but need to be more educated,” Fischer said.

Since the hospital started the program at the end of 2003, 53 employees have completed the SAW program. Another 17 were slated to graduate at the end of January.

“We didn’t have a lot of leadership or career development for our lower-level hospital employees,” said Paulette Wilson, acting education service line executive at the Houston medical center.

“Many of the SAW students do not have a great opportunity to use computer skills because they come from food service or housekeeping,” she said. However, without computer skills and other training, they don’t have the qualifications to apply for other positions.

Robert Tobias, a professor of labor and management at American University, said organizations must do more than announce that career advancement opportunities are available. They must encourage employees to enroll in courses and support their aspirations. Entry-level training is crucial, but it should continue beyond that, especially in computer skills, he said.

Elizabeth Jenkins, equal employment opportunity and diversity program manager at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, said when she launched a SAW program last spring, many employees were skeptical, wondering if their prospects would improve after they completed the courses. Jenkins was able to secure funding to help SAW graduates continue their education at a community college, and that extra effort has created a new wave of employees interested in participating in the SAW program.

“The students were asking the same thing: What’s next?” Jenkins said. Six employees from the first SAW class graduated in January and are planning to attend junior college, she said.

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