Facing big staffing challenges, UCHealth launches new program to fund more education for workers

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The UCHealth Greeley Hospital and helicopter in Greeley, Colorado, on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.

Two rough years of the coronavirus pandemic have exposed big cracks in Colorado’s health care system, which has seen a record number of patients. Overworked and overwhelmed hospital workers have been leaving their jobs in droves. 

Now UCHealth, one of the state’s biggest systems, with 27,000 employees, is starting a new multi-million dollar program to help with staffing shortages by funding educational opportunities for its workers. 

Employees are now eligible for the UCHealth Ascend Career Program — which will cover 100 percent of tuition for select clinical programs, high school diplomas and English learning.

“We believe in this program,” said David Mafe, UCHealth’s chief diversity officer. “Over the course of the first four years, we believe that we're going to be investing somewhere between 35 and 50 million (dollars), depending on how many people participate in the program.”

The new program replaces an previous tuition reimbursement-style one.

UCHealth will also fund some degree programs, specifically in social work, behavioral health and other areas. The push will help address the shortage of clinical health care workers.

“The old adage was that you went to college so that you could get a good job. We’re turning that on its head and saying, 'Come work for UCHealth so that you can get an education, so you can go to college’” he said.

UCHealth’s previous program offered a tuition reimbursement, based on tenure with the organization. Now, “the first day that they're employed at UCHealth, they can sign up for this program,” said Kelli Christensen, with public and media relations. Also, under the old program, an employee was reimbursed after they attended classes and they received a passing grade.

Under the Ascend Career Program “they sign up, they focus on their schooling and the tuition is taken care of. So I think that's what makes this program so interesting,” said Christensen.

The campaign will also include partially funded programs, where UCHealth will directly pay an employee’s school up to $5,250 per year for a wider selection of in-network programs. And it also provides for tuition reimbursement of up to $5,250 per year for accredited programs outside the Ascend catalog.

The move comes as health systems deal with large numbers of staffers leaving — and a record number of patients. 

For months, a variety of polls and studies have warned of burnout in health care workers, with high numbers either leaving their jobs or thinking about it.

“No matter what survey, whether it's national or local, upwards of 50 percent of the nurses and more regularly report, the single biggest reason for them leaving their job is the workload,” said Colleen Casper, executive director of the Colorado Nurses Association. She said the pandemic had only exacerbated longstanding challenges for nurses, including long, grueling hours and challenging patient-to-nurse ratios.

About 20 percent of U.S. health care workers had left their jobs during the pandemic, according to reporting from the Atlantic in November. And that was before the massive omicron surge.

In Colorado, that wave pushed transmission and case numbers into record territory in January and caused a hospitalization spike that nearly topped the all-time high for the crisis set in December 2020.

Throughout the latest surge, about half of Colorado hospitals have regularly reported they anticipated a staffing shortage within the next seven days. In recent weeks, it’s been common for nine out of 10 intensive care beds in the state to be in use.

At the start of the pandemic, Colorado generally reported nearly 2,000 ICU beds in the state’s system, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. Now that number is about 1,500, an indication of the staffing drain.

The program partners with Guild Education, which has worked with other large employers.

The UCHealth program is being offered in partnership with Guild Education, a major national education and upskilling platform. UCHealth, in a press release, said the push will provide “growth opportunities for current UCHealth employees while attracting new employees interested in pursuing a career in health care.” 

Guild has a history of working with other giant employers — like Chipotle, Discover, Target and The Walt Disney Company — in providing education and upskilling to workers. 

The program will include education coaches to assist workers in choosing the programs and courses best for them.

The health system cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ predictions that health care employment will grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030. That’s expected to happen at a quicker pace than the average for all occupations and add an estimated 2.6 million new jobs in the next decade.

Colorado’s health care labor shortage could be especially intense due to its rapid population growth, along with new workers joining at a slower pace than others retire. 

“UCHealth is taking an innovative approach to improving health care labor challenges by providing exciting education benefits for both our current staff, as well as those who want to enter the healthcare field,” said Elizabeth B. Concordia, president and CEO of UCHealth, in the release. “We know the cost of higher education and certification programs can be a barrier to career growth, and the Ascend Program will help extend those opportunities for all.” 

“The past two years have underscored how vital health care workers are to our society,” said Rachel Carlson, chief executive officer and co-founder of Guild Education, in the release.