What’s a philosophy-biology double major doing changing bed pans?
For Breeze Victor, a 23-year-old graduate of Bucknell University, working as a nursing assistant at Tufts Medical Center — and all of the unglamorous duties that come with it — is helping him figure out what he wants to do with his life. It’s not research or teaching, as he thought when he started college; it’s becoming a nurse anesthetist.
Tufts recently launched a program aimed at college graduates like Victor to bolster its staff of approximately 250 nursing aides, called clinical care technicians — a job that involves taking vital signs and moving patients and typically requires a certificate that can be earned in four to eight weeks.
Filling these jobs with college graduates gives young people exposure to the health care field and helps the hospital fill a chronic shortage of nursing assistants with high-quality workers, said Terry Hudson-Jinks, chief nursing officer at Tufts.
“We found that this is a population of bright individuals really looking for their next career move — or their first career move — and really wondering if health care is for them,” Hudson-Jinks said. “It’s also met a really big operational need that we have.
Some question whether requiring a bachelor’s degree for a lower-level position is shutting out otherwise qualified candidates. But there is no shortage of jobs. Nursing assistant positions are expected to grow 17 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the US Department of Labor.
So far, 119 people have completed Tufts’ six-week training program, while being paid $15.50 to $17.50 an hour, with benefits. They are then asked to make an 18-month commitment to working at the hospital. The program has become so popular that there is a waiting list for each class, Hudson-Jinks said.
Turnover rates for nursing assistants have plummeted since the program began almost two years ago: 94 percent of trainees stay for 18 months. Previously, half of the hospital’s aides left within a year. The vacancy rate has fallen to 5 percent.
The hospital credits the trainees’ enthusiasm about breaking into the health care field for the reduced turnover, as well as their desire to get experience that could help them get into a nursing, physician assistant, or medical school program.
Ally DeRizzo, 23, has stayed for almost two years. Since graduating with a degree in health science from Boston University, DeRizzo has been assisting nurses in the mother-infant unit, as well as in neonatal intensive care and labor and delivery. Before she enrolled in the Tufts program, DeRizzo was leaning toward getting a master’s degree in public health, but her stint at Tufts has made her realize that she enjoys working directly with patients. Now she plans to apply to an accelerated program to become a registered nurse.
“It reinforced my love for health care and my love for helping people,” she said.
The bachelor’s degree requirement has attracted a high caliber of employees who can learn and communicate effectively because of their college educations, said Hudson-Jinks.
The training may even be shortened to five weeks because the students have caught on so quickly, she said.
“They’re like sponges,” she said. “Their ability to actually walk into a situation and know what to do has been a result of their preparation at the bachelor’s level.”
The Tufts program is an innovative way to get more people into health care, said Judith Shindul-Rothschild, a professor at Boston College School of Nursing who studies nurse staffing. But there is a concern that hospital administrators could see it as a way to beef up their staffs with low-cost nurses’ aides instead of hiring more registered nurses, she said.
This is particularly problematic in Massachusetts, where health insurance reform has encouraged more patients to seek treatment and nurses have intense workloads.
The education requirement could also shut out qualified candidates — part of a growing trend of employers seeking college graduates for jobs that don’t normally require higher education, according to the Boston job market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.
Many potential nurse assistants are community college students working on an associate’s degree in nursing or immigrants with extensive health care experience in their native countries. Aides often go on to become registered nurses, and not considering candidates of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds could hurt the diversity of the nursing field, Shindul-Rothschild said.
“I think that there’s a danger of cutting off opportunities for people of color and nursing students,” she said. “Is this another elite end-around? I just don’t know.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Tufts hiring policy for aides.