To Work is an Opportunity to Learn for BJC Employees

As much as Amber Clemons longed to move toward a college degree following high school graduation, the cost of higher education kept getting in the way.

“You have lots of dreams, but I just couldn't afford it,” Clemons said.

Now 28, Clemons pays little thought to cost as she wraps up a general studies college curriculum, the first step toward the biological engineering degree she hopes will bring a career in biomedical research.

That education is a perk that comes with Clemons' job as a patient accounts analyst with BJC HealthCare.

With more than 3,400 staffed beds at 13 hospitals throughout the region, St. Louis recognizes BJC primarily as the region's  preeminent provider of medical services. Less known is the system's role as an educational institution that offers its 28,000 employees a total of 1,898 college-level courses, training seminars and clinical classes -- all at minimal or no cost.

So far this year, nearly 24,000 participants availed themselves of the BJC Center for LifeLong Learning. More than 1,800 BJC employees have earned high school diplomas, certificates and degrees from various programs in 2012.

“They have their own university when you think about it,” says Roderick Nunn, vice chancellor for workforce and community development at St. Louis Community College.

The impresario of the BJC educational empire is JoAnn Shaw. Shaw, who gravitated into health care from a background in human resources and employment law, arrived in St. Louis 12 years ago after putting together a similar education model for the University of Chicago Medicine network.

She confesses only a slight understanding of the education field until she landed the University of Chicago gig. Yet, she persevered in Chicago.

And as the health network's vice president and chief learning officer, Shaw has guided the BJC LifeLong Learning Centerfrom 26 programs serving the educational needs of 475 BJC employees in 2004 to the 1,898 classes – 1,725 online – offered today.

‘Bridge' benefits

The students include Clemons and Rosalie Davenport, a 50-year-old scheduler in the cancer unit at BJC's Missouri Baptist Medical Center. Both women enrolled two years ago in a LifeLong program that provides employees that haven't earned a degree with a “bridge” to college.

The bridge is built with degree-bearing courses taught by St. Louis University faculty; the cost, to Clemons and Davenport, comes out of the $4,500 yearly educational stipend that BJC includes in their benefit packages.

Unlike many tuition plans, BJC employees receive the allotment up front, as opposed to paying out of pocket and receiving reimbursement upon completion of the course work.

“We wanted to take away the obstacles for our most vulnerable employees — people who don't have cash up front to cover costs,” Shaw explained. That benefit, along with a similar program called Pathways, is aimed at “employees with potential, but through no fault of their own didn't pursue an education. So we said, ‘OK, we'll bring the programs to you.'”

For Clemons and Davenport, BJC's commitment translates into the free education they are receiving in BJC Learning Institute classrooms on the upper floors of a Richmond Heights shopping center.

The price of textbooks are the only incurred cost — an expenditure offset by a program in which BJC matches dollar-for-dollar up to $500 in employee contributions to an education savings account.

Davenport essentially enrolled in the bridge classes to “fill some time.” To her surprise, the learning struck a chord. She now plans to pursue a degree in nursing.

“I'm awestruck,” she says of the price of her college education. “(Especially when) you look at all the kids with their student loans.”

Kelly Klasek, a health and wellness coordinator with the Children's Hospital marketing department, is in her third and final year of a Webster University MBA program offered through that school's partnership with BJC.

Had Klasek taken the traditional route by enrolling on the Webster campus, the price of tuition alone would have been several times what she pays now. Her cost? Around $2,200 a year.

“It's like leaving money on the table if you don't do it,” Klasek said.

From a strictly financial standpoint, the students are far from the only beneficiaries of the BJC equivalent of the GI Bill. In its own analysis of the LifeLong Learning model, BJC determined the level of employee retention linked to the program saved the health care network $7 million between 2005 and 2011.

The $7 million, Shaw points out, is money BJC might have otherwise spent on recruiting and training had the employees departed for other jobs.

The sum, she adds, far exceeds the costs for tuition reimbursement, partnerships with local colleges and universities and the administration of the program.

Common model

An employer as education provider may be uncommon in St. Louis, but the model is not unique nationally among health care networks.

In most instances, major medical system curricula represent an outgrowth of the ongoing clinical training demanded of physicians, nurses and specialists.

The broadened focus of health care, coupled with the expansion of hospital services beyond traditional medical care, persuaded many systems to strengthen the education of all employees.

“Health care has been evolving so exponentially over the past 10-15 years that we need to keep the workforce at the curve, if not ahead of the curve, to maintain quality standards,” said Maureen T. White, the chief nurse executive with the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.

The New York network, the nation's fourth largest, offers thousands of classes to its employees.

Though the model Shaw brought to St. Louis from Chicago has succeeded at health care facilities here and elsewhere, it has yet for the most part to be adopted by businesses outside the medical field.

Shaw contends it could be.

Large companies, she maintains, have the capacity to integrate learning initiatives into their corporate structure. Small businesses, meanwhile, could conceivably form consortiums to provide workers with a that perk BJC's research has concluded is key to maintaining employee morale and satisfaction.

LifeLong Learning is the place BJC relies on for system-wide mandatory safety, security and patient care courses. It is the initiative that gives dropouts an opportunity to earn a high school diploma — not a GED — and the entire workforce a chance to brush up on the latest advances in software.

In personal development classes with titles like “Time Management” and “Emotional Intelligence: It's All About Me,” the center also devotes itself to the development of the so-called “soft skills” — such as empathy, teamwork, leadership and communication — that BJC and other employers note are sorely missing in many younger employees.

Shaw emphasizes that LifeLong Learning ultimately isn't just about the bottom line for BJC or its employees. The real payoff, she says, is the impact the learning has on the thousands of patients seeking treatment each day at BJC facilities.

In that context, Shaw asks, “How could you afford not to do this?”