(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Trudy Brenner didn’t know if she’d ever have the opportunity to work as a health care provider again.
Brenner’s Certified Nursing Assistant certification had lapsed, and the cost of being recertified was prohibitive, especially for someone who had been homeless and just recently graduated Mel Trotter Ministries’ rehabilitation program.
But through Mel Trotter, Brenner was introduced to a program new to Grand Rapids, catering to students who were interested in a career in health care but might not have the means to act on it. Put on via a partnership between West Michigan Works! and the Michigan Career and Technical Institute, the program is 13 weeks long, involves rigorous education, and for students who qualify, it allows them to get certified at no out-of-pocket cost.
“It was right up my alley,” said Tiffany Burrell, another program participant who graduated the program with Brenner and eight other students two weeks ago.
After running a number of successful training courses in Benton Harbor, Detroit and Battle Creek, the MCTI brought its specialized CNA training course to Grand Rapids. The curriculum is tailored to suit the needs of participants with lower skill levels, and when the course is completed, students receive CNA certification and are considered job ready.
Each class comprises of about a dozen students who begin the CNA program with a three-week pre-class workshop taught by West Michigan Works! Through the pre-class training, the students are taught the basic tenets of the workforce, including soft skills and professionalism, while also learning basic medical terminology.
After the initial three-week session, the students engage in a 10-week training program — five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a focus on hands-on experience blended with academic work. West Michigan Works! also provides the training space for the students, converting space at their West Side service center into a training lab for health care professionals.
“There’s a big need in long-term care given the aging population, and it’s a good fit for our students that one of the characteristics of the program is it’s much more intense than your typical CNA program,” MCTI Director Paul Mulka said.
At the end of the program, the students take the state CNA certification test, and for those who fail the test on the first go, they are offered another chance to take the test days later. Program instructors and classmates work together to study and ensure every student passes eventually.
After graduation, West Michigan Works! organizes a chance for the students to meet with potential employers and complete a career portfolio to prepare for the workforce.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for us to fill the employer demand, and it’s a creative way to fill the talent needs and build that career pathway for people,” said Jennifer Mitchell, West Michigan Works! training consultant. “For some of these students, this is an opportunity they wouldn’t have through traditional means.”
For Burrell, the opportunity arose when she visited the West Michigan Works! office in hopes of finding a job that would allow her more time to spend with her family. She had previously attempted to receive CNA certification, but the cost prevented her from doing so.
The focus on hands-on learning appealed to her immediately, and she is looking forward to finding employment at an agency so she can diversify her experience at different nursing homes and, eventually, move toward working full time at a facility.
“I’m more of a hands-on learner, so that’s what I loved the most, was the focus on experience,” Burrell said. “The modules and everything we did in the class had been read to us, and we got to learn the skills hands-on.”
Brenner, who already had been certified once before, said she was blown away by how rigorous and demanding the course was. The state requires students to receive at least 75 hours of instruction to receive CNA certification, but the number of hours required in MCTI and West Michigan Works! program well exceeds the state minimum.
By taking the course, Brenner — who, at 59, was the oldest student in her class — said she is even better prepared to enter the workforce than she was previously.
In addition to the coursework, both women espoused the overall structure of the program that allowed the students to bond together and work to ensure everyone passes the course and moves on to gainful employment. Burrell said the relationship between the students, instructors and everyone who came into the classroom was “like a family.”
“I would be honored to work with any one of these women,” Brenner said. “I know with their skills, their knowledge and their personalities that the job would be well done.”
The specialized program began in Benton Harbor in 2014, and Mulka said the program is on its seventh class there. He said the Benton Harbor classes have operated with about a 94 percent completion rate, 97 percent state test pass rate and 81 percent rate of post-certification employment.
Mulka said the benefits of the program are threefold in that it not only helps the students experience a new career path, but also employers looking for skilled employees while addressing the talent shortage from an economic development standpoint. He said adult individuals who have become “disengaged” from the workforce typically find it difficult to get back in, and many times may have hidden disabilities like anxiety or depression that prohibit them from doing so. By offering an alternative method to get back on track, the hope is that the program taps into a talent pool that had been largely ignored.
“I think many people are seeing that finding that untapped talent out there is critical because, especially in West Michigan, we’re basically at full employment,” he said. “The question is whether you can find enough qualified individuals to fill those positions in demand, and I think there’s a lot of talent out there, both in people living in poverty or with disabilities that are being overlooked or are disengaged with the system. It’s critical for us to use as much talent as we can to fill those roles.”
Mitchell said West Michigan Works! is committed to partnering with the MCTI to continue the course and discussions about how often the course will run — twice-a-year and quarterly options have been considered — will begin soon. Kulka said the partnership with West Michigan Works! has been one of the program’s best experiences yet.
The only hurdle for the organizations is funding. Mulka said the program covers the cost of each student, “from soup to nuts,” with funding provided jointly by Michigan Works! and Michigan Rehabilitation Services, for students who qualify for the service. With uniforms, shoes, equipment and the cost of two tests, it averages about $2,400 per student. Still, Mulka is “bullish” about the prospect of continuing the program in Grand Rapids — as are the first batch of students.
“I hope that they have another class here in Grand Rapids, because I know in the health field, this is so needed,” Brenner said. “There are so many compassionate people that can’t afford to take those classes and this not only offsets the expenses but is actually a better program overall.”