Bloomberg Backs New High Schools Tailored to Boost the Healthcare Workforce

High schoolers in Durham, North Carolina will have opportunities to learn at the Duke Health system, and potentially get jobs there. Photo: University of College/shutterstock

Bloomberg Philanthropies just unveiled a $250 million initiative to “graduate students directly into high-demand healthcare jobs” by standing up new high schools specifically focused on that task. It’s simultaneously aiming to address health system inequities, tackle the nation’s serious shortage of healthcare workers and provide young people with pathways to employment and a living wage. 

The initiative, announced last week, will provide funding to education systems and hospitals in 10 communities across the country — from Boston and Philadelphia to Houston and rural Tennessee. The funding will underwrite new or revamped public high schools that will provide training for healthcare employment, along with regular academics. Bloomberg says the aim is to “serve nearly 6,000 students at full capacity.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ expansive agenda covers everything from environmental causes and gun control to the arts. Public health is also a major focus, and Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative has worked to boost diversity in STEM and the health professions. In its education giving, Bloomberg is best known for championing charter schools and making major gifts to donor dollar magnets like Johns Hopkins, but its priorities in the area also include “supporting career and technical education.”

Jenny Sharfstein Kane, who leads Bloomberg’s career and technical education portfolio, made it clear that the initiative reflects the values of the billionaire himself. “[Mike Bloomberg] is very enthusiastic about this initiative,” she said. “He feels like there should be options and opportunities for every student. A four-year college is great if that's the right fit for you and that's what you want to do, but you shouldn't be left with no options if you choose not to go to a four-year college. He believes that all students deserve to have pathways to good jobs with upward mobility and family-sustaining wages.”

Hands-on healthcare experience

A number of big funders today are supporting K-12-based career and technical education initiatives. The Walton Family Foundation has invested in high schools that provide pathways to careers, as IP reported, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative has funded programs in this area as well. And they aren’t alone. According to Grantmakers for Education’s report “Trends in Education Philanthropy: Benchmarking 2023,” half of grantmakers surveyed (55%) said that they “provide support for workforce development and career pathway programs. Two out of five of these respondents (41%) expect to increase related giving in the next two years.”

The goal of these efforts is to increase student engagement in school while providing real employment skills. “For too long, our education system has failed to prepare students for good jobs in high-growth industries,” Mike Bloomberg said when the initiative was announced

Durham, North Carolina, was one of the 10 communities selected. Bloomberg awarded the Durham partners — Duke Health, Durham Technical Community College and Durham Public Schools — $29.5 million to establish an early college for high school students who want to pursue healthcare careers. Graduates will earn a high school diploma along with an associate’s degree or workforce credential preparing them for careers in nursing, allied health, surgical tech and clinical research. 

Participating students will work with mentors in the field and engage in hands-on learning, according to Melissa Ockert, dean of health and wellness pathways at Durham Technical Community College. “We’re being really thoughtful about what credentials students are earning, which will give them opportunities to shadow, or do internships or get jobs at Duke Health, engaging with the personnel in the health fields,” she said. “And from a student success perspective, they’ll be learning medical terminology and getting stackable skills. In surgical technology, for example, students are going to come into a position already familiar with the instruments they're going to be using in surgical tech. That kind of experience will make them more successful all along the way.” 

“A win-win for us all”

There’s also a distinct equity component to the initiative. In Durham, one of the partnership’s goals is to increase diversity in the healthcare system so it more closely reflects the demographics of the local population. Eighty-one percent of students who attend Durham Public Schools are nonwhite, making it one of the most diverse districts in the region.   

Students throughout the Durham public school system will be eligible to apply to the new high school, but Oluwunmi Ariyo, the director of college recruitment and high school partnerships at Duke Technical Community College, said she and her team will reach out specifically to first-generation, at-risk students. “We want to see more of a diverse background among those working in healthcare,” she said. “We really want to home in on this demographic to make sure they have the opportunity to get a job with a livable wage, and to increase generational wealth for families in Durham.”

Another goal is to build up the region’s healthcare workforce overall. Durham is facing a severe healthcare staffing shortage, like most of the country. According to figures cited by the National Conference of State Legislatures, for example, by 2026, the healthcare system could have a shortage of as many as 3.2 million allied health workers, including medical assistants, home health aides and nursing assistants.

Debra Clark Jones, associate vice president for community health at Duke Health, said that her institution has many positions they haven’t been able to fill, not just for nurses and physicians, but for allied health workers including medical assistants and clinical researchers. “When you think about all of the organizations that are impacted by the shortages — it's not just the health system, its skilled nursing facilities, hospice — a lot of different groups are in need of the types of professionals that this early college will help train,” she said. 

While a number of philanthropic funders do back workforce efforts targeting these fields, professions like nursing and areas like mental health still need a lot more funder attention to grow staffing pipelines. And demand is increasing post-COVID, as the baby boomers age. Burn-out is high across the health system, a problem that understaffing only exacerbates. Meanwhile, the tendency of many big health donors to favor, say, naming gifts for new hospital wings or research laboratories does little to address the more prosaic but urgent issue of unfilled jobs.

In addition to its capacity to address the workforce shortage, Jones is excited about the new high school’s potential to increase economic mobility for families in the Durham area. “Fifty-four percent of students in Durham Public Schools choose not to pursue a two-year or four-year degree upon graduation; that's a huge population,” she said. “We’re hoping the new program will provide jobs and economic stability and mobility for some of these students, as we seek to advance health equity and address the social drivers of health in terms of housing insecurity and food insecurity. This initiative is a win-win for us all.” 

Matchmaking and de-risking

Bloomberg has been working for a while to increase career and technical education for students, and Jenny Sharfstein Kane said they’ve learned that employer buy-in is critical to make these programs work. “There has to be a real integration of what employers need in terms of jobs, and their participation in the development and the implementation of the program,” she said.  

At the end of 2022, Kane and her team began reaching out to hospital systems in areas where Bloomberg was already working as part of its education portfolio. They had initial conversations with about 15 hospital CEOs to gauge their interest. “Overwhelmingly, we've heard, ‘Yes, we have up to 5,000 openings in our hospital. We're closing down beds because we don't have enough healthcare workers. We're having to hire visiting nurses that we have to pay 10 times as much as regular employees. And it's only getting worse,’” Kane said. “There is such a need that they are open to innovating. Many of them had never spoken to their local school district, so we served the role of matchmaker in some cases, getting hospital systems and local school partners together.

Duke Health’s Debra Jones says that health systems are reluctant to invest in solutions that may or may not work, particularly when budgets are already tight. “Bloomberg is de-risking something that's really critical,” she said. “Probably the majority, if not all, health systems across the nation are facing financial challenges, given the disruptions in healthcare and just coming out of the pandemic. Because of financial challenges in the sector, it's all about mitigating risk, looking at cutting costs and really strengthening that balance sheet. Bloomberg’s investment allows us to try something we’ve wanted to do, to test out some of these theories and really strengthen our local relationships. That's why I use the term ‘de-risk,’ because we're in a state of mitigating risks as much as possible, but this allows us to move forward.”