Published in Talent

Colleges leverage apprenticeship model for medical careers

BY Sunday, July 24, 2016 02:31pm

Amid growing demand for health care talent, the partners behind a medical assistant apprenticeship program now look to expand the model to other in-demand areas. 

Surgical technicians and sterile processing technicians are just two areas under consideration for extending the apprenticeship program that launched last year at Grand Rapids Community College, in which students work part time for a year in a clinical setting as they receive classroom training.

“Those are the two areas that employers have brought to us as being high needs, so we’re in conversations about those at this time,” said Linda Witte, program developer and manager for health programs at GRCC. “Those are the ones we’re going to start a focus on and really do some research on what it will take to make this happen.”

In 2015, GRCC joined with West Michigan Works!, Muskegon Community College, Montcalm Community College, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and Spectrum Health to create a medical assistant apprenticeship, a training model traditionally used in manufacturing and the skilled trades.

The first cohort of 24 medical-assistant students is now halfway through the apprenticeship program, which is run by West Michigan Works!

“We’ve had that model from manufacturing and from the trades. There are apprenticeships and the partnerships that have existed, and now health care is looking more at the non-traditional venues and non-traditional apprenticeships,” Witte said. “We’re able to take lessons that we learned from our counterparts in other sectors and have been able to make that work and make adjustments so that we in health care can do it as well.”


Deb Lyzenga, regional director for business solutions at West Michigan Works!, hopes an apprenticeship for sterile processing technicians can begin as early as this fall.

The agency is working with five care providers in a seven-county service area who are “extremely interested” in a program for sterile processing techs, Lyzenga said.

The current partners include Spectrum Health, Mercy Health in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Metro Health, Cherry Street Health Services and Sparrow Ionia Hospital. A couple more hospitals in outlying areas around Grand Rapids also “are at the table talking,” she said.

Extending the apprenticeship model into other health care fields stems in part from the early success with the medical assistant program. Employers partnering on that program report working with students who “are more confident, experienced and reliable,” Lyzenga said.

“The employers are finding that this model works and that the people that come out of the apprenticeship are better than what they see traditionally,” she said. “When that happens, they hop on and say, ‘What can we do next?’”

Medical assistants are a relatively high-demand profession in West Michigan. The 2016 Health Check report issued early this year by the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University projects jobs for medical assistants to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, with 746 annual job openings and just 151 graduates each year from area colleges.

The next apprenticeship cohort that begins this fall will expand to 36 students, Lyzenga said.


To address the demand, GRCC in the last year doubled its capacity to train medical assistants by partnering with West Michigan Works! for the apprenticeship and expanding its year-long program from 30 to 60 students per class, Witte said. 

“We’re looking for other ways we can increase the capacity even more,” she said. “We are going to continue to do what we can to respond to our employers’ needs and our community’s needs and design and implement programs in traditional ways and innovative ways to meet that need while maintaining program excellence.”

GRCC has a 100-percent placement rate for medical assistant graduates in the last five years. In the most recent class, most students have at least one job offer and some have multiple offers, Witte said.

The initiative to train more medical assistants for care providers in the region follows a broader push by educators to keep up with the increasing demand for people to work in the health care sector.

Community colleges maintain regular contact with health care employers to gauge talent needs for entry-level positions and how they can adjust academic programs to meet them with graduates “who are ready to step in and fill those needs,” Witte said.

In addition to expanding the medical assistant program, GRCC is working with employers to put together an off-campus certified nursing assistant program. The college is looking to “partner in new ways to help us increase capacity so we can meet their needs.” 

Holland Home’s Raybrook Campus will host the training program, Witte said.


Other examples of expanding health care academic offerings in the region include:

  • GRCC last month signed an agreement with Spectrum Health to form a $7 million scholarship fund for students interested in pursuing a career in health sciences. The GRCC Health Care Professionals Education Scholarship Fund will distribute $350,000 annually through the GRCC Foundation beginning in 2017. As part of the deal, Spectrum Health paid another $5 million to buy a 2.3-acre parcel at Barclay Avenue and Lyon Street that was once the college’s football field and track.
  • Davenport University’s College of Health Professions plans to launch a Doctor of Physical Therapy program at its W.A. Lettinga Campus in Caledonia in January 2017. The program incorporates a graduate certificate in health care management. As a post-baccalaureate entry-level program, it’s designed to prepare students to become practicing physical therapists, a field where GVSU’s 2016 HealthCheck report projects employment growth of 22.7 percent from 2012 to 2022 across Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.
  • In downtown Grand Rapids, Western Michigan University’s College of Health and Human Services this fall launches a Master of Public Health program. 
  • Aquinas College in Grand Rapids this fall launches a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling. Aquinas will offer the program on both a full-time and part-time basis to cohorts of no more than 24 students per school year.
  • Muskegon Community College plans to develop a $14.1 million Health and Wellness Center that “gives us the ability to collaborate with the health care community so that our students will have opportunities to work in clinical settings on our campus,” said President Dale Nesbary. “The facility will also be open to other nursing programs in the region.” The state Legislature appropriated $5.6 million in the 2017 fiscal year budget to support construction of the center, which is targeted for completion in the fall of 2017. 
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