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Atrium Health: Working With High Schools to Grow Its Nursing Pipeline

| Education & Workforce Development

‘Success Stories in Action’ spotlights success stories working toward solutions to pressing workforce challenges, as part of the NC Chamber Foundation’s Institute for Workforce Competitiveness.

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It’s no secret that there is a nursing shortage across the United States.

Regionally, that challenge is even greater.

“The Southeastern United States has some of the worst nursing shortages in the country,” said Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer with Wilkes Medical Center, which is located in Wilkesboro. The hospital is part of the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist health system.

To combat that challenge, the medical center is offering the LEAP 2 RN youth apprenticeship program. Atrium is one of several employers who have created these programs for future nurses.

“Our apprenticeship is for high school graduates who come to work for us as nursing assistants,” said Bachmeier. “We have an entire program and curriculum that the apprentice participates in, either simultaneously while they’re in nursing school or preparing them for nursing school.”

The high school graduates do not have a nursing license but are listed with the state.

They can work as nursing assistants and provide certain aspects of nursing care.

Those include daily living activities, such as helping patients eat, get dressed, and use the bathroom.

“We have a progressive wage scale that helps as the person progresses from Nursing Assistant 1 to Nursing Assistant 2,” said Bachmeier. “Then, the final 500 hours of their apprenticeship they’re making 80% of what a registered nurse would make.”

For Wilkes County Schools students who are interested in pursuing a career in nursing, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

“If you want to be a nurse and you want to have a career—a very lucrative career, a very rewarding career—right out of high school, here’s a path where you can get your certification,” said Joe Bullis, executive director, Career and Technical Education and Federal Programs with Wilkes County Schools.

Bachmeier said she and her team will help the apprentices navigate the process of completing nursing school.

Most high school students who have done their health sciences curriculum will qualify for the apprenticeship.

“It’s hard to grow a nurse unless you think about doing things like this,” said Bachmeier. “So, literally, we are working with the high schools to grow our own nurses.”

“That support that they’re getting makes it very rewarding to them,” added Bullis. “We have nothing but positive feedback.”

Bullis said students can apply for apprenticeships in their senior year.

He also said you can tell who likely will want to apply.

“You see that spark,” said Bullis. “You see the fire in their eyes. You see the going above and beyond and the excitement when something happens, and they perform something well. You can tell that person is destined to do some great things in the field.”

Even though applications don’t occur until senior year, the process starts long before.

Wilkes County Schools begin hosting career days as early as middle school.

Career days aren’t limited to just the nursing profession.

“We try to organize several events for our students to make them aware of the different opportunities in the community,” said Bullis. “The career days are part of that. We invite people from all businesses, entrepreneurs, small business owners, new organizations from the different areas. We invite them to come and talk to our students and bring hands-on activities.”

Bachmeier takes part.

“Several times throughout the year, we have an invited opportunity by the schools to access the students and talk about what we do,” she said.

The school system also partners with Wilkes Community College to ensure that there is one career coach in each of the four high schools in Wilkes County Schools.

“They meet with students, and they counsel them on career pathways and, if you want to do this, then here are some business partners that we can team you up with,” said Bullis.

Specific to nursing, the LEAP 2 RN youth apprenticeship program started three years ago.

“Our first apprentice graduated nursing school, successfully completed her apprenticeship,” said Bachmeier. “So, now she’s a registered nurse here at Wilkes Medical Center working and taking care of patients. It’s great.”

Bachmeier expects that is only the beginning.

“We are creating a pipeline, a staffing pipeline,” she said. “Hopefully, we create a valuable opportunity for the students, as well.”

Bullis knows how valuable it is and has this recommendation for any school system looking to start a similar program.

“Reach out to the medical personnel and make that offer,” he said. “Say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an opportunity where we can funnel some students your way.’”

Bachmeier echoed those sentiments from the health system’s perspective.

“Pick up the phone and call your county school superintendent,” she said. “It’s in our mutual best interest for economic and workforce development to engage and work with each other. Pick up the phone and call them. I’m sure they’d be very happy to hear from you.”

This profile was a collaboration with the NC Chamber Foundation as it works to spotlight solutions for current workforce challenges: how businesses are building talent pipelines, collaborating with educators to close skills gaps, and strategically planning for workforce needs. Additionally, the NC Health Talent Alliance, an initiative of the NC Chamber Foundation and the NC Center on the Workforce for Health, is expanding and establishing roots in our communities to specifically solve critical health care talent shortages throughout our state. Atrium Health is an NC Chamber Cornerstone member. Read more Success Stories in Action here.