COOS COUNTY — Oregon’s Bay Area is now home of the first and only medical assistant apprenticeship program.
Coos County has had the program for two months, but can already boast of six apprentices and Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board is behind it.
“Of course there are other apprenticeship programs in the state, but they are for construction or manufacturing,” said Jake McClelland, executive director of SOWIB. “When our board looked at areas for potential action, our board decided to go with healthcare first because it’s our biggest employer here, it’s growing, and has decent paying jobs.”
According to McClelland, SOWIB uses federal and state resources to help keep local workforces healthy and identify projects to address shortages.
SOWIB brought medical employers together from Coos, Curry and Douglas counties to talk about their needs and one was for certified medical assistants.
“Up to a couple years ago, you didn’t have to be certified to be a medical assistant,” McClelland explained. “A clinic could hire you and train you on the job. Now Medicaid has changed how it does reimbursements, so anybody who is working in healthcare and touching an electronic record has to be certified. It turned into a weird situation where clinics had uncertified staff and not enough certified workers to go around. The community college program could also only graduate about 10 to 15 a year.”
SOWIB looked at the many uncertified workers and came up with a project to help those who had a year or more experience get grandfathered in. But to do that, they had to take a test, which worried some employers.
“A state grant covered the cost of the instructor and we covered the cost of the exam and study materials, which was about $300 per person,” McClelland said.
SOWIB ended up sponsoring the first 75 through the program. When they ran out of funding, the clinics stepped up and sponsored their own staff.
“Now we are up to 225 between the three counties who have gone through the program and been certified,” he said.
That may have helped fill the need for medical assistants, but SOWIB wanted to avoid the problem happening again.
“An apprenticeship is obviously a well-known workforce development tool being utilized in other fields for the trades,” McClelland said.
Through this program, people can get hired, go to work and get paid on a progressive wage scale. They start off not much higher than minimum wage, but are also starting out with no experience or certification. As they progress through the training, they have pre-set points where their pay is bumped up.
After 2,000 hours, they reach the normal pay for a medical assistant.
“An apprenticeship allows people to get paid, go to school at the same time, avoid taking out loans and dropping out of the workforce for two years for school, so it’s a win-win situation for apprentices and clinics,” McClelland said.
Since starting the program, McClelland has spoken with other areas about the apprenticeship model.
“It’s good for rural areas where you don’t have training programs,” he said. “As we’ve talked to colleagues around the state, it is an easily replicable program.”