Long Odds for Hospital Jobs: Hundreds Seek D-H Training Slots

Tuesday, July 29, 2014
West Lebanon — There were no drill sergeants in sight. No Outward Bound wilderness ordeals. No deals to vote anyone off the island.

But as 350 job seekers flocked to a West Lebanon hotel Monday, formidable obstacles lay between them and 30 entry-level pharmacy technician or medical assistant jobs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

The biggest challenge would not start until after Labor Day: a grueling training course, nine or 10 weeks without pay, 40 hours in class each week followed by 28 or more hours of homework. Then, a year-long apprenticeship.

But hopefuls faced long odds to even get into the class. More than 700 Twin-Staters signed up for the jobs. Prospects must also pass criminal records and reference checks and an online aptitude test and engage in two rounds of interviews.

Even as they arrived at the Fireside Inn, attendees began a winnowing process destined to frustrate the hopes of most. While they stood in line to register, assessments of their “behavioral competence” were underway, said Gerry Ghazi, the president of Vermont HITEC, which operates the program. Organizers noted who showed up wearing shorts despite instructions to wear “business casual” or failed to bring along resumes, he said.

But there were also words of encouragement. “The program is designed so that people don’t fail out,” said Sarah Currier, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s recruitment director. “There are individual jobs associated with each of these apprenticeships,” she added later. And those jobs could open the door to further advancement: “The sky’s the limit.”

But first on the horizon are the 30 jobs that Dartmouth-Hitchcock advertised with a starting wage of $14 an hour and an increase to $15 to $17 an hour after the apprenticeship. In Lebanon, D-H currently employs 76 pharmacy technicians and 37 medical assistants, said spokesman Rick Adams.

Monday’s job seekers came from all points of the compass, drawn by emails and advertisements and notices printed on the backs of unemployment checks in New Hampshire and Vermont. Candidates stepped forward from the ranks of the underemployed — those working two jobs to make ends meet, for example — and of the homeless or participants in vocational rehabilitation programs, Ghazi said.

Some already had jobs. Sandra Larosiliere, a licensed nursing assistant at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said she was “on the fence” about whether it would make sense to give up her current job to join the program.

But Kalyn Chamberlin, a licensed nursing assistant from Bath, N.H., had no such reservations.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “I’m going to get in.”

Graduates of previous HITEC programs spoke about the level of commitment expected of participants.

“My husband said there were a ridiculous number of hoops to jump through for a job,” recalled Jessica Harris-Mckee, who was one of 13 graduates of a medical coding program earlier this year. She worked hard to prove the doubters wrong, she said.

“My husband and I and my teenage children, we gave up a lot to do this program,” said Vicky Coughlin, who was trained as a registration representative.

A Brownsville woman with a newborn and a part-time job as a convenience store cashier said she attended trying “to find a better career.” After asking that her name not be used so as not to alert her current employer, she said the program “would definitely be challenging but it seems like it’s worthwhile.”

Two-thirds of the new jobs would be as medical assistants trained to greet, assist and discharge patients, oversee prescription refills and immunization orders, collect specimens and help with other clinical tasks. Communications are a big part of the job, said Michelle L’Heureux, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s medical director of primary care. Her medical assistants “know my patients better than I know my patients,” she said.

Most of the new medical assistants would become part of patient “medical homes” that include doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, registered and licensed professional nurses, behavioral health specialists, social workers and care coordinators, said Ethan Berke, the director of primary care and population health. By being available to do routine tasks such as recording vital signs and providing health counseling, he said, the medical assistants could contribute to an approach where “everyone on the team works at the top of their license.”

Five of the 20 new hires would be trained as “virtual medical assistants” working with telehealth and other technologies to provide care without the need for a patient to travel to a hospital or clinic, Berke said.

Ten of the jobs would be as pharmacy technicians, positions that New Hampshire law describes as pharmacy employees who perform “manipulative, nondiscretionary functions” while supervised by a licensed pharmacist. Pharmacy technicians must register with the state but needn’t pass a test.

Marva Williams-Lowe, the inpatient pharmacy director, said that at Dartmouth-Hitchcock technicians work with sophisticated machines: a McKesson robot, an Exacta-Mix 2400 and an AcuDose cabinet.

Keila Grigoryan, a pharmacy manager, said that most of the new technicians work would involve distribution and compounding.

The candidate culling will continue with two-hour aptitude assessment tests administered at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, a round of one-hour interviews with the survivors by Vermont HITEC next week and, for those still in it, a round of two-hour interviews with Dartmouth-Hitchcock managers the following week. Classes start right after Labor Day.

Ghazi, a 54-year-old computer programmer from New Jersey with a law degree but no formal credentials in education, said that while working for a Burlington technology firm, he developed a job training playbook to take participants “from A to Z in a fraction of the time it would normally take.”

To develop a teaching strategy, HITEC staff spent time working at the jobs they would train students to fill. “We reverse engineered the curriculum,” Ghazi said.

Ghazi, whose 14-year-old agency has also trained job seekers for Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington and Hypertherm in Lebanon, said in an interview that in the Upper Valley “the work ethic is outstanding.” Still, he cautioned, “a lot of times people will self select out.”

Such worries didn’t faze Sheryn Hebbert, of Rutland, who moved to the United States from Nicaragua in 2010.

“I’m from a third world country and strong as hell,” she said.

Besides, she added, dealing with her two children, ages six and two, already kept her going 24 hours a day.

And those who missed the cut for this program should keep trying, said Currier, the recruitment director.

“Don’t lose faith,” she said. “Go through the process. Give it your best shot. We’re always looking for talented people.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.

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