Seasoned IT talent still hard to find

How to get a job without experience? How to get experience without a job? Apprenticeships might be one way forward.
By Mike Miliard
09:27 AM

The challenge of finding, hiring and keeping qualified and experienced staff members remains one of the biggest barriers to CIOs and other health IT professionals achieving their project goals.

That's one of the takeaways from the 25th Annual HIMSS Leadership Survey, published this past February: Staffing only takes a back seat to financial and budget concerns when it comes to the challenges hampering IT initiatives' forward momentum. Indeed, nearly one-fifth of respondents (18 percent) said hiring was their biggest challenge.

[See also: Talent shortages threaten IT momentum]

That said, hires are being made: 39 percent of respondents said they planned to increase the size of their IT staffs in 2014, with the top three jobs vacancies being clinical application support (36 percent), network/architecture support (29 percent) and clinical informatics (21 percent).

Finding candidates with the right experience for those positions, however, might be easier said that done, says JoAnn Klinedinst, vice president of professional development at HIMSS

When we spoke in June, Klinedinst had just come back from a healthcare roundtable meeting convened by the U.S. Department of Labor, about the federal Registered Apprenticeship program.

[See also: Workforce training at work]

"The complaint is that healthcare organizations need trained talent," she says. "There are folks who've got lots of degrees, they just don't have the experience. This apprenticeship program is one way to overcome that."

As a White House press release put it this past April, when President Obama announced millions of dollars in job training and apprenticeships: "Many fast-growing occupations and industries with open positions, such as in information technology, high-tech services, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing, have an opportunity to adopt and adapt apprenticeship programs, to meet their skilled workforce needs."

"We've heard this for years," says Klinedinst. "There's a talent gap. Healthcare organizations have particular needs, they can't find anyone to hire, so they hire consulting firms, achieve whatever needs to get done and then that talent walks out the door. This registered apprenticeship program certainly is one way to fill that need."

Through the program, apprentices get a paycheck that increases as their knowledge and skills progress. Apprenticeships can last one to six years, and can often lead to college credits, according to the Department of Labor.

Health systems such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H., and Burlington, Vt.-based Fletcher Allen Health Care have availed themselves of this apprenticeship program, says Klinedinst, using them for positions ranging from coding to  pharmacy tech to critical care nursing.

That might point to a way forward for younger job-seekers, or those willing to recalibrate their careers and put the time in to gain new skill sets. For more seasoned IT pros looking to get into healthcare from other industries, the frustration can be acute.

"The biggest pain point is, I have the education, I have the credentials, I don't have the experience," says Klinedinst. "How can I get the experience if you're not willing to hire me?"

Her advice? At least in the short term, "You've got to reevaluate. OK, you've been a project manager in other non-healthcare IT settings making maybe $95,000. If you want to get into healthcare you've got to moderate those expectations. Because you're not going to make that walking through the door without a knowledge of the content."

Another way to stand out from the pack might be to pursue HIMSS' certification programs, with designations such as Certified Associate in Healthcare Information & Management Systems (CAHIMS) and Certified Professional in Healthcare Information & Management Systems (CPHIMS), she says. "That's a way to differentiate candidates as well." 

A critical need for staffing at rural hospitals

Keep an eye out for HIMSS Analytics' second annual workforce survey, due later this month, for more data on a job market that's challenging for employers and job-seekers alike. In the meantime, providers are still in desperate need of experienced talent, as evidenced by a more targeted survey published recently, focused on critical access hospitals. 

Conducted in February and March 2014, the report's findings "confirm concerns raised surrounding workforce staffing needs within CAHs," according to HIMSS Analytics.  Such "workforce voids" are a "clear challenge" IT leaders at small and rural hospitals, the polling finds, with more than one-third of respondents claiming their organization had an open/unfilled IT staff position within the past year.

To meet these challenges, critical access hospitals often rely on the staff resources of outside vendors; nearly half (49 percent) of respondents said they outsources at least one IT capability.

Nonetheless, CAHs "generally utilize a 'do it yourself' approach surrounding one of their most challenging tasks: recruiting staff," according to the report. Few took advantage of staffing firms, preferring to use more traditional tools such as website postings or staff referrals.

Staff retraining was another challenge faced by almost half (47 percent) of respondents, but few knew what to do about it, citing lack of resources.

That's too bad, according to HIMSS Analytics, which noted that initiatives such as ONC's Community College Consortia Program were "largely unknown to our sample population, leading one to question ways this program could be reimagined in order to more effectively impact the CAH workforce."

Indeed, a March 2014 evaluation of the now-shuttered CCC project – and other components of ONC's Information Technology Professionals in Health Care Program – conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found mixed to positive results.

The program earmarked $68 million, distributed among 81 community colleges nationwide between April 2010 and October 2013, to establish or improve non-degree  health IT training. The goal of the CCC was to improve those colleges' readiness to train 10,500 health IT specialists each year.

The NORC review found that students from the programs were "more likely to be employed, and in health IT in particular, after the program than they had been beforehand. At baseline, 77 percent of students reported having a job; at follow-up, a similar proportion of respondents were employed (80 percent). At follow-up, overall, 34 percent of students reported employment in health IT."

The third cohort "received a unique question at follow-up, asked only of those who responded that they were not working in health IT, which asked about health IT responsibilities. Among this group, 28 percent reported working in health IT and an additional 40 percent reported having health IT related responsibilities," according to the evaluation.

"Students who found a job with a different employer after completing the program believed that their program participation had a strong impact on obtaining their new job or job title," it continued. "Students still seeking a job felt strongly that the skills they had learned in the program would help them obtain a job in health IT and perform well in it."

Meanwhile, employers hiring CCC graduates were "generally pleased with their performance, but many noted the graduates needed to work on their 'soft skills' that are usually acquired through real-world experiences," according to the report.