Making a Career U-Turn

Employers facing talent shortages may want to take note how recruiting displaced workers from old-line industries like the U.S. auto business—and collaborating with firms in similar straits—can help them close workforce gaps.

May 18, 2007
Parents are often surprised to learn that the nurse treating their child for a congenital heart defect used to work in a Michigan auto facility.

But after Blair Dudley explains that he made the switch after his then-3-year-old daughter, Ruby, was diagnosed with bilateral Wilms tumors, a cancer of the kidneys, parents’ concerns often morph into admiration.

"When she was in the hospital going through treatments, I was constantly asking questions and trying to learn as much as possible about her condition," says Dudley, a former project manager at Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn, Michigan-based IT facility that rolls out software to Ford and Ford supplier sites globally.

"That desire for knowledge led me down the road to health care."

By 2005, at 39 years old, Dudley had completed a one-year pilot nursing program at the University of Michigan and had become a registered nurse. By the time he was done, his contract with Ford had been terminated.

Michigan’s health care industry is banking on the fact that there are more Blair Dudleys out there. The state, like the rest of the country, is facing huge shortages of nurses and hopes to recruit displaced autoworkers to address the problem.

Michigan anticipates being short 14,000 nurses by 2012, says Linda Kruso, director of workforce planning at Beaumont Hospitals in Royal Oak, Michigan. At the same time, the state is seeing massive layoffs of workers in the auto industry—which has traditionally been its largest source of jobs—as General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler plan to slash 78,000 jobs during the next several years.

As a result, Michigan’s hospitals, state officials and nursing schools are developing accelerated nursing programs and targeting autoworkers, many of whom receive funding from their former employers toward education as part of the employee buyouts.

Michigan’s efforts are still in their early stages, so results remain to be seen. But officials across the country are keeping an eye on the state’s initiatives as they have similar discussions about how to take workers from shrinking industries and retrain them for the health care industry, experts say.

"This is going on across the country, especially in the Rust Belt, where there is a lot of downsizing," says Karen Hart, senior vice president in the health care division of New York-based Bernard Hodes Group.

The health care industry may be at the forefront of this trend, but all employers facing talent shortages should be paying attention to how recruiting displaced workers from old-line industries may help to solve their problems, says Luellen Lucid, a consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide who is working with Michigan officials on their program.

"While the situation in Michigan is somewhat unique, it shows how thinking creatively can help employers facing workforce shortages," she says. "By forming coalitions, they can raise the visibility of their needs and target other industries."

The challenges that employers will face in recruiting displaced manufacturing workers into health care are formidable.

Many of the workers leaving the auto industry are already middle aged and might not be up for the 12-hour shifts and physical labor that are required of nurses, says Carole Stacy, director of the Michigan Center for Nursing. She admits that she cringed a bit the first time she heard about the idea of transitioning displaced autoworkers into nursing positions. Many workers don’t have the academic credits to enter nursing school, Stacy says.

But Dudley says the skills required in his new profession aren’t that different from those he needed at Ford. "There are a lot of similarities in terms of technical skills, being able to read charts and handle and troubleshoot machinery," he says.

Funding is the challenge facing health care providers who aren’t in Michigan but who are trying to recruit workers from other declining manufacturing sectors. While many laid-off autoworkers receive money from their former employers to return to school, it’s rarely the case in similar industries.

"If there are no buyouts from the employer, then you need state funding to make a program like this viable," says Deborah King, executive director of 1199SEIU, a local branch of the Service Employees International Union. The union represents 275,000 health care workers and retirees in New York, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts.

Michigan had the funding. In fact, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm has awarded $30 million for accelerated nursing programs during the past three years.

Health care officials in the state believe that creating accelerated nursing programs will get middle-aged workers on the job faster. They also believe such efforts will not only bring in more talent, but will reduce turnover as well.

In health care, like most industries, there tends to be higher turnover among younger workers than older workers, says Jamie Hale, a consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Twenty-eight percent of nurses ages 25 to 34 changed jobs within the past two years, compared with 17 percent of workers 45 to 64, according to a 2004 Health Care Advisory Board survey.

"Older workers are more loyal and a much more stable workforce," says Robyn Stone, senior vice president for research at the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, a not-for-profit nursing home association based in Washington. "The potential to recruit these workers is great for areas that have been heavy in manufacturing as they transition into a service-sector economy."

The Michigan case
    Michigan’s major health care providers realized early on that addressing the pending nursing shortage would require collaboration not only with one another, but with schools and the state.

Since 2005, officials from the major health care providers have been talking to one another about their current workforce needs and what they projected them to be in years to come, Kruso says.

Last fall, the health care providers, with the help of Watson Wyatt and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, put together a formal symposium to address the talent shortage.

More than 100 officials from health care providers, nursing schools and state government attended the October 10 event, which took place at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center at Michigan State University.

"Reaching out to displaced workers in the auto industry was a key theme," says Lucid, who spoke at the event.

Specifically, much of the discussion focused on how schools and health care providers could use assessments to determine whether displaced autoworkers would be a good fit for health care, she says.

"Then there was discussion around how to train these people quickly," she says.

This year, a number of health care providers and nursing schools have launched accelerated nursing programs to address the training issue.

For example, Beaumont Hospitals has partnered with Michigan State University and Oakland University to offer accelerated programs targeting displaced workers.

The programs allow those with a bachelor’s degree in another field to obtain a nursing degree in one year, as opposed to four.

Beaumont is heavily promoting the program to workers at GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, Kruso says. "This is the first time we have been so targeted at displaced autoworkers," she says.

In January, Beaumont held a recruiting event with Michigan State promoting its accelerated program and invited mostly autoworkers at the Big Three. About 250 people attended, Kruso says.

Similarly, last March, Henry Ford Health System was approached by Oakland University and Ford Motor Co. to create an accelerated program for Ford’s displaced workers, says Jeraldine Jackson, administrator of nursing development.

The accelerated program has two tracks—a three-year program for individuals who do not have a science-related four-year degree and a one-year program for those who do.

In February, Henry Ford and Oakland opened the program to displaced autoworkers at GM and DaimlerChrysler. The Detroit-based health care provider has held four recruiting events.

"We are targeting 50 students for the first class, and based on the response we are seeing, we are sure we will get it," Jackson says.

While Oakwood Healthcare System has also introduced an accelerated nursing program in partnership with Oakland, Diane DiFiore, manager of nurse recruitment, says there are challenges in getting displaced autoworkers interested in it.

DiFiore says that last year she went to Ford’s Woodhaven stamping plant to recruit autoworkers and found that most employees weren’t interested.

"Most of the individuals who came to speak to us were men and were inquiring on the behalf of a sister or a niece," she says, noting that there is still a stereotype of nurses being women. "There really has to be a desire on the part of the individual to take care of people," she says.

Grass-roots efforts
    One state that’s monitoring the Michigan health care industry’s efforts is North Carolina. In recent years, North Carolina has been hit hard by the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, says Kim Jernigan, program coordinator for health sciences at the North Carolina Community College System.

In July 2003, textile provider Pillowtex, one of the state’s biggest employers, closed down, leaving more than 4,000 workers in North Carolina unemployed.

The state’s workforce development board has been retraining many of these individuals, and the health care industry is discussing how it can reach out to these and other dislocated manufacturing workers, Jernigan says.

State officials have visited Michigan to see how North Carolina’s health care providers can form their own sector strategy, she says. North Carolina’s community colleges are discussing ways they could provide education and training to dislocated manufacturing workers in a modular way, so they would not have to take years off from work, she says.

"We are looking at ways that people could get smaller increments of education that allow them to get into the workforce quicker," she says. "It’s still being fleshed out, but hopefully they could get some kind of certificates and enter the health care workforce from there."

Officials in central New York have also been paying attention to the efforts in Michigan and are working to provide certification to displaced and unemployed workers who could then go into health care as well as other fields.

The Manufacturers Association of Central New York is working with Tom Hadlick, director of the WorkKeys program at Syracuse University, and the Northern Area Health Education Center, a Cannon, New York-based center aimed at assisting health care providers in the region, to develop certification for displaced workers to get into other fields. Transitioning displaced manufacturing workers into health care is part of this program.

Through the WorkKeys program, which was developed by ACT, an Iowa City, Iowa-based provider of assessments and research, workers who are displaced or unemployed take a series of online and paper-based tests to determine what skills they possess, Hadlick says.

For example, skills needed for health care positions include observational abilities, teamwork and the capacity to quickly interpret graphics, he says. Workers who do well in certain areas will receive a certificate of competency for a specific position, he says.

"We are focusing on jobs that do not have degrees or licenses," such as nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians and paramedics, Hadlick says.

Once those individuals are identified, their information will be posted on a Web site hosted by the Northern Area Health Education Center, says Richard Merchant, president and CEO.

The site,, also shows job candidates positions they would qualify for, he says. Because of the talent shortage in nursing, health care providers today are more open to hiring employees into entry-level positions and then training them to become nurses, Merchant says.

Success of growing within
    Although the Michigan and North Carolina initiatives are still in the startup phase, some health care providers already have had success with hiring displaced manufacturing workers into entry-level positions.

In 2003, northeastern South Carolina was suffering from massive layoffs in the textile industry. The South Carolina Employment Commission launched a program with McLeod Health, a hospital with 4,700 employees and the largest employer in the region, to train and hire displaced manufacturing workers.

In early 2004, McLeod conducted aptitude tests for about 250 unemployed individuals, says Craig Butler, who headed up HR at McLeod at the time and is now senior vice president of HR at First Bank in Lexington, Tennessee.

"We needed to know if they could learn skills, like how to use a computer," he says. "And we needed to make sure that they were interested in re-entering the workforce."

After the screening, McLeod put the 80 candidates who passed the screening through a nine-week training program that taught them the basic skills needed to work at a health care provider, including the skills needed to be a nursing assistant, he says.

Once the training was complete, McLeod put the candidates at the top of its hiring lists for entry-level jobs, which ranged from nursing assistants to registration to housekeeping.

Almost immediately, the employer started feeling the effects of bringing these workers on board, Butler says.

"They showed so much appreciation for the opportunity and it was just contagious to other employees," he says, noting that turnover fell as a result. Jeannette Glenn, the current vice president of HR at McLeod, said the health care provider didn’t track how much turnover dropped because of the initiative, but she said turnover is low today—about 15 percent.

Since the program began, McLeod has hired 15 more workers through the initiative, and the employer has retained all but one of these employees, Glenn says.

Part of the motivation for these entry-level workers is the opportunity to get more training and make six-figure salaries someday, Butler says.

Blair Dudley, the autoworker-turned-pediatric cardiothoracic nurse, agrees that the opportunities he has today are much greater than those available to him before.

Although Dudley took a pay cut from $60,000 a year when he worked at Ford to $44,000 when he started as a nurse, he is now entering a 28-month program to become a registered nurse anesthetist. Starting salaries for that position range from $150,000 to $200,000.

And when Dudley is ready to slow down, he says he has opportunities there too. "I could become a school nurse or a nurse in a retirement community," he says. "The opportunities are endless."

Workforce Management, May 7, 2007, p. 1, 16-21 -- Subscribe Now!