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Kathy Clark has come prepared with a bubble wand and a jar of cinnamon to teach her Wednesday morning class at Washington University.

She is covering a lesson on bacteria and viruses.

“In a little bit, we’re going to talk about modes of transmission,” she tells her 13 students at the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center.

Bubbles float through the air and pop on the tables. A squeezy ball that’s been coated in cinnamon is tossed around the room. This is how contagions disseminate, Clark says.

The students take notes on their laptops and offer suggestions on how to stanch the spread of germs.

They should know. They have been working as medical assistants at WU’s health centers since April.

Unlike traditional students, they haven’t done most of their learning in the classroom. They were hired by Washington University at the same time that they were accepted into the second cohort of medical assistant apprentices. The inaugural group of apprentices started last fall.

The apprentices work four and a half days a week in a medical office, checking patients in, taking vital signs, updating charts and learning alongside doctors, nurses and other health professionals. They convene on Wednesday mornings for class with Clark.

The apprentices pay no tuition. They receive a salary and benefits from Washington University, and when they complete the 12-week class, they get a pay raise. They are officially apprentices for a year, with periodic “refresher” classes led by Clark.

Apprenticeships aren’t a new concept to trades such as plumbing or carpentry. But they haven’t been done as much in health care.

For Allie Andrade, 32, who moved to Belleville from Georgia this year, it was just what she needed to start her career.

“A lot of places want experience,” she said. “It was like, ‘Will someone just give me a chance, please?’”

Andrade was hired by the Center for Outpatient Health in the dermatology department. “To learn on the job, from world-renowned physicians, I’m getting a good foundation,” she said.

The apprenticeships were the brainchild of Clark, a human resources consultant at Washington University. Twenty years ago, a job as a secretary in a doctor’s office led her into medical assisting and then teaching medical assistants before she shifted to human resources.

University pipeline

Smaller, for-profit trade schools have been under fire in the past few years for churning out students with a lot of debt and few job prospects.

Many have closed, including Berkeley-based Vatterott Educational Center, which shut its doors in December. At the same time, the need for medical assistants has been growing, with a predicted 29% job increase by 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At Washington University, Clark has had to fill almost 500 medical assistant openings in the past year. On-the-job training could be a way to start their own little pipeline at the university, she thought.

“We could take people with some health care background and help them earn a credential, gain a career and gain a good paycheck, and fill our needs at the same time,” Clark said.

She and two other human resources consultants, Shawn Bradford and Tracey Faulkner, connected with St. Louis County Workforce Development and the Urban League of St. Louis. Local and federal grant money pays for the apprentices’ tuition, which is about $3,000 per student.

“There’s been a big initiative about apprenticeships from the federal level, so that’s been our focus,” said Michelle Smart, deputy director for St. Louis County Human Services. “St. Louis has a big medical pool, but not enough staff.”

Last fall, Workforce Development and the Urban League posted a flyer for the program on Facebook, which drew more than 400 people to informational sessions.

Priscilla Thomas-Corbin, 24, was discouraged when she saw the crowd. She had been earning $11 an hour at a community health clinic helping people enroll for insurance coverage. With a new baby, she was struggling to make ends meet.

She couldn’t afford a tuition bill, much less hire a babysitter if she had to take evening classes.

“I knew I wanted to get into the medical field, and the apprenticeship was a door to get into it,” said Thomas-Corbin, who lives in Jennings. “It was a process, but they set it up to where it works for you.”

She took a medical assistant pretest, spoke with a round robin of Washington University department managers and was hired by the Center for Advanced Medicine as their newest medical assistant.

Balancing a new job, homework and motherhood was not easy, but it helped that she was earning more money, had health benefits for her son and could tap a built-in support network in her classmates.

Being in the clinic helped her make the connection between what she was hearing about in class and what that looked like in practice.

“The clinic can see 100 patients a day,” said Thomas-Corbin, who would someday like to become a registered nurse. “Working with the patient, you learn something new every day.”

At the end of her 12-week course with Clark, she took the certification exam and passed, along with the rest of her classmates. They all received pay raises.

“I had a proud parent moment when the last exam came in. We expect perfect attendance. We expect a lot out of them,” said Clark, who mentors students for the entire year. “The small class lets the students get to know each other, and I can keep my eye on them better. The best part is watching them grow and get promoted.”

Washington University has already held information sessions for its third medical assistant apprenticeship cohort, starting this summer.

Smart, with the county’s Human Services Department, said she would like to see the program become a model for other employers.

“They saw there was a shortage in their talent pool, and they took a risk,” Smart said of Washington University. “Businesses have to shape the workforce, too.”

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