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Marina Juarez spent four years working at San Antonio’s state-supported living center, caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Later, she had a job at a nursing home but didn’t see a clear career path for herself.

While taking courses at Alamo Colleges the 28-year-old learned about an apprenticeship program with Methodist Healthcare through one of her professors and decided to apply. The six-week program resulted in Juarez getting a job as a patient care technician at Methodist Hospital, allowing her to better support her daughter.

“I didn’t grow up on that richer side, so bills are a touchy subject,” Juarez said. “The program was life-changing for me, one of those things that is too good to be true, and then it all started falling into place. I was able to put money down to live in a new place … I have a 4-year-old, so I am able to afford everything for her. “

Alamo Colleges’ apprenticeship program with Methodist launched in March 2020 after the community college system won a U.S. Department of Labor Closing the Skills Gap grant, which aims to expand the workforce in the healthcare, manufacturing, and information technology industries.

The $1 million grant allowed Alamo Colleges to create a four-year program centered around workplace job experience for talented low-income students who are currently unemployed or underemployed. Methodist Hospital was one of the first employer applicants that offered to host program participants and provide the necessary on-the-job training. 

Alamo Colleges’ decision to focus the apprenticeship on the health care industry resulted in large part from the coronavirus pandemic, said Verne Futagawa, the grant project director at Alamo Colleges. Throughout the pandemic, the demand for health care workers increased significantly, and the college system saw an opportunity.

Potential apprentices are generally students enrolled in a certified nursing aide or patient care technician program. They are recruited by Alamo Colleges project directors based on previous experiences or certifications and referred to the Methodist human resources team, where they go through an interview. The first 27 students to participate in the program were selected out of 65 applicants. 

Once accepted, the apprentices complete six weeks of training, working at several departments of the hospital while being paid almost $13 an hour, shadowing nurses or doctors, and attending classes on any Methodist Hospital campus. In addition to being paid for their work, students are reimbursed for transportation, uniforms, or even rent if needed. After the training period is over, the apprentices become full-time employees of the hospital.

“This is a great way to learn in a way that is not just thrown to the wolves,” Futagawa said. “When the students know that the grant is going to offset some of the costs that may be prohibitive in another job setting, like uniforms, that is money they can spend on something else. It’s giving individuals that have been affected by COVID the opportunity to get into a middle-skill type job.”

Fourteen people who have completed the program are now working full time for Methodist as patient care technicians. Two more groups of apprentices are undergoing training this summer.

Blessing Udoh completed the apprenticeship program and is now a full-time PCT (patient care technician) with Methodist Hospital. Credit: Courtesy / Blessing Udoh

Organizers at the Alamo Colleges hope to attract more health care employers to the program and expand the workplaces where apprentices can train.

Methodist has been looking for ways to attract local employees, said Courtney Duffey, residency coordinator at the hospital.

“This is a great way for us to get people into entry-level health care positions … and let people know that we do have these positions open and that we are able to train,” she said.

The apprentices have proven especially valuable because they stay with Methodist long-term. Many individuals starting entry-level positions in health care often quit or transfer to different departments due to the difficulty of the job. This has not been the case with the program participants, according to Methodist officials.

Juarez completed the program on April 30 this year. Next, she plans to work towards her registered nurse (RN) certification at the Galen College of Nursing, where Methodist will provide her with tuition reimbursement. 

Jane Bernard, 44, was unemployed when the pandemic began last year and saw the apprenticeship program as a “blessing.” But after the first 12-hour shift at the hospital, she seriously considered quitting; after months without a job, she wasn’t used to being on her feet for hours.

“I went and got some compression socks and tennis shoes because I love helping people,” she said. “… When I go into a patient’s room, I treat them like it’s my mom, how I would want my mom to be treated.”

Bernard plans to continue working as a patient care technician at Methodist and eventually become a registered nurse. 

“The development of these individuals — the growth of many that really didn’t have another better alternative — is inspiring,” said Futagawa about the program participants. “It’s what keeps me and my colleagues going from day to day.”

Polina is a Shiner Editorial Intern for the San Antonio Report.