A few years ago, LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, N.Y., investigated the employment needs of baby boomers in the community. The college soon realized that the duties of community health workers were a good match for people over 50, especially low-income older immigrants with years of professional experience in their native countries. So the college, with leadership from John Garcia, director of special projects, and Dr. Maryam (Sara) Esfarayeni, associate director in allied health initiatives, began to create a community health worker training program.
For those who don’t know, community health workers are advocates who work to make sure local residents receive the health information, resources and services they need. Studies show that community health workers – a relatively new job category – help reduce disparities in health care and improve health outcomes in underserved communities.
The first class of 25 older adults – almost 90% were unemployed at the time – enrolled in the training, known as Encore Careers in Allied Health, in the fall of 2008.
Yvonne Meade-Clemente, 60, is one of its proud graduates. A Panamanian, Clemente worked as a legal secretary for most of her adult life. When her mother required medical attention, she provided the care and found the work satisfying. After a long period of unemployment, she was ready to use that interest to find a new career.
LaGuardia’s Community Health Worker program gave Clemente just the boost she needed. When she completed her training, she did an internship with the Alzheimer’s Association and then accepted a full-time Community Health Worker position with Northern Manhattan Prenatal Partnership (NMPP), where she says she’s very happy.
The program is compressed and rigorous. Students attend classes from 9 to 5 on 15 Saturdays. Topics include outreach methods and strategies, long-term care goals, and advocacy and responsibility.
At the end of the classroom training, students must complete an internship. Since most host sites limit hours interns can work, some encore students find a simultaneous internship at a second site to complete the requirement sooner.
LaGuardia offers encore learners additional help to ease their transitions. They can attend optional workshops on topics including career pathways, financial literacy, nutrition and health, job readiness, and computer and technology skills for the health care worker. The most well-attended workshops deal with computer skills.
Solid working relationships with several external organizations factor into LaGuardia’s success. Garcia and his colleagues work with several partners – the New York City Department for the Aging, Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and the NYC Public Library – to help with recruitment.
At the conclusion of LaGuardia’s pilot, 23 students had completed the training; 11 of them had begun their second careers as community health workers, either working full time or interning in a variety of organizations, including the Northern Manhattan Prenatal Program, Bronx Lebanon Hospital, the Alzheimer’s’ Association, American Diabetes Association and Building Knowledge, Building Health, a nonprofit community organization. Seven other completers were awaiting internship placements.
Garcia emphasizes the importance of a good screening process to evaluate an applicant’s likely fit with an anticipated encore job. “Our selection process required applicants to participate in career transition workshops, TABE testing [Tests of Adult Basic Education], and a one-on-one interview,” Garcia says.
“Our advice is to ensure a rigid screening process to recruit good candidates for specific training,” he adds. “For our next training cycle, two of our industry partners have agreed to assist us in interviewing and selecting our final candidates.”
Attracting attention, LaGuardia’s community health worker program received state funds to conduct two additional training cycles in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
In June 2011, with support from the Office of the University Dean for Health and Human Services, LaGuardia hosted a conference on community health workers’ training. The conference brought together practitioners from California, Minnesota, Arizona, Ohio and Texas, who shared their experience setting up programs in their states. Employers from city agencies who hire community health workers described their hiring practices.
CUNY has expressed interest in creating a system wide community health worker academic certificate program, another potential leg up toward sustainability and permanence.
Garcia says the community health worker program was successful for a variety of reasons – it met an emerging community need, it targeted the right audience, and those over 50 were happy to transition to jobs helping others. “Most of our students had worked in the business environment for many years,” Garcia says. “All our students embraced the challenge of helping other individuals. They enjoy making a difference in someone’s life.”