Solving for the Healthcare Workforce Development Gap

As the cultural demographic shift continues on its trajectory from urban hubs to the American heartland, it is creating an urgent need in the healthcare industry - the nation's second largest industry and soon to be its largest - to start building a more diverse talent pipeline for the future. National retailers have been stepping up to play a more active role in the delivery of healthcare services, and as such they now share in the responsibility to understand the strategic implications of and help solve for the talent gap that is widening amongst minority groups, especially Hispanics.

It's time for all stakeholders to start advancing the strategic requirements and defining a set of tangible solutions - through the sharing of best practices and intellectual capital - to help close the talent gap amongst minorities in the healthcare and biomedical fields. To be sure, the opportunity gap in healthcare extends well beyond physicians and scientists. We also need to educate diverse candidates about job opportunities in marketing, IT, public policy, etc., and create greater awareness and access to these opportunities.

But the issue is much bigger than healthcare alone. We must solve for STEM in general and create greater career awareness, access and engagement at all levels of education - from K-6 to middle school and high school to post-secondary - and on into the workforce across all industries.

Minority youth and working professionals equally need to be involved in the conversation to help influencers understand their engagement responsibilities across each phase of the value chain (which we'll discuss in more detail shortly). One other thing is certain: parents need to play a more active role to gain clarity and understanding of the opportunities that a STEM education can open up for their children and why it's so important to their future.

We all must collectively dive deeper to define and prioritize the solution-set, resources and intellectual capital requirements for each of the four phases of the value chain.

Before we can start the process of addressing these high-level concerns, we must gain a foundational understanding of the problem upon which we can identify and build the solution requirements. This requires answering such questions as:

  • How do we tell the authentic story so that others comprehend the opportunity and the risk of letting the talent gap widen?

  • How do we take advantage of young children's interest in science - and then keep them on the path to a career in healthcare and/or STEM?
  • What are the missing resources? And how do we leverage technology and social media?
  • How do we partner with decision-makers in other industries, post-secondary institutions, government boards, and the "informal" leaders in our communities?
  • In other words, how do we solve for STEM throughout all four phases of the value chain, which are defined as follows.

    Phase 1 starts with Grades K-3. This is the "Learn to Read" stage. (After this stage, we "Read to Learn.") In early elementary school, children are showing interest in science and this makes it a good opportunity to engage, educate, and expose them to STEM.

    Phase 1 continues with Grades 3-5. This is when the interest that children showed in science starts to wane. Why? And how do we prevent children from losing interest in science at this age? Parents and children are missing from this conversation - and many other factors are getting in the way, including: cross-cultural issues; socio-economic issues; lack of parental engagement and tools for parents; traditional and social media influence; not enough interaction with the medical community; the missing "cool factor" between kids and science; and the lack of visible role models and involvement from "informal mentors" such as coaches and community leaders.

    We also know that key influencers change at each phase of the value chain, and at this phase it is 80% parents and other caregivers, such as grandparents and other extended family members. The other 20% is friends, celebrities, teachers, sports, and clubs/groups (such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts).

    Phase 2 comprises the middle school and high school years. It starts with pre-teen students who - no longer contained to one classroom/one teacher - now have choices. They have 5-6 teachers and electives exposing them to a variety of options, and if they are interested in science, the issue for many now becomes: can they afford quality schooling for science.

    Peer pressure becomes stronger at this phase, as does exposure to cultural and parental expectations. Additional influencers include siblings and extended family members (cousins, uncles, aunts, etc.); extra-curricular leaders (coaches, etc.); YouTube "stars" and celebrities in sports and music, etc.

    Phase 2 continues through high school. These are the years when kids are really discovering their identity. It includes whether they define themselves academically or not. This determines their future mapping toward college and/or career. There is tremendous peer pressure at this phase, as well as bullying. Social and emotional learning is taking place, and kids are also dealing with sexual and gender identity issues.

    Minorities face additional, unique challenges in high school, such as not feeling like they belong and/or being placed in alternative learning settings. For minority students, the key influencer percentages have reversed since the first phase. Family members make up 20%; for those on track to go to college - especially if you are the first one - family pressure is strong. But tools for parents are missing.

    For high schoolers, 80% of influencers are people not related that act as role models and provide guidance, such as teachers and school counselors. However, kids are also influenced by fringe groups (outside the school setting) and social media. Communication is key, as is the messenger delivering the message.

    Phase 3 is the post-secondary years. This phase encompasses 4-year and 2-year higher learning institutions, technical schools and certification programs, and those who enter the workforce directly from high school.

    A big split with previous generations is that millennials are questioning the value/purpose of college, and the cost of college debt. Technology has given rise to more options as to how they can achieve success. They see examples (Silicon Valley, etc.) where success does not necessarily require a college degree and paying for higher education.

    Cultural and parental expectations remain strong at this phase. This includes proximity to family, which influences decisions and creates tension with personal aspirations. They have more information available to them but also more awareness of the real-life barriers that exist, and this affects their decision-making (their roadmap). But they have greater awareness of what interests them and the options available to them, and one thing they want is for the institutions they work for to have a higher purpose.

    Phase 4 finds people entering the workforce - where they often start out with an "I can change the world" attitude. In the workplace, this attitude quickly gives way to the reality: more barriers, the politics, cultural tension, the complexity of expectations, the lack of a roadmap and difficulty in understanding opportunity pathways. People are looking for company values and ways to belong (such as Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, etc.), but there are lots of competing expectations. These include: competition to differentiate vs. pressure to conform (where authenticity may be seen as a risk); individual accountability vs. need to become a citizen of a "community"; public vs. private persona; financial pressures and the competing priorities of family and personal life; and life stages and events (the expectations vs. the realities).

    There is need for new influencers at this phase (external and internal), especially when stuck in a silo. Key influencers may include: company leadership, boss, and co-workers; mentors/ sponsors; professional organizations; connections to diversity groups; life partner/family; and professional network.

    The time sensitive talent gap must be addressed with greater urgency to support the unique needs of diverse patients in the healthcare and biomedical fields (and across other STEM dependent industries). Unfortunately, this has become a burning platform we're not discussing enough - and based on my organization's research, it has become clear that key stakeholders have different ideas and unique perspectives of what the talent gap means; as a consequence, it remains largely undefined -- and the discussions to date have not moved us towards an actionable strategy fast enough. Without any real progress or momentum, it remains a "diversity" conversation that continues to be viewed as a cost-center initiative, rather than a business strategy that is interpreted as a profit-center investment. There is a sense of urgency at play when you consider recent findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine on August 24, 2015 that noted:

    • Of the 688,468 practicing physicians in 2012, only 5% were Hispanic and 4% were African-American

  • Of the 16,835 medical school graduates in 2012, only 7% were Hispanic and 7% were African-American
  • Of the 115,111 trainees in "postgraduate" medical education (internships and residencies), only 8% were Hispanic and 6% were African-American
  • The cultural demographic shift is telling us that it is becoming less about the business (and industry) defining the individual and much more about the individual defining the business (and industry).

    Without strategy, change is merely substitution, not evolution.

    It's time for executives in the healthcare and biomedical fields to define a strategy for change around this minority workforce development gap (burning platform) so that we can finally begin to solve for it - the right way. We need a clear understanding of the issues and how to address them as a business problem to allow the industry to evolve. Otherwise, industries are putting themselves in a position of great risk and at a competitive disadvantage.

    It's not only going to take time, resources, and a commitment to act - but a clearly defined strategy that solves for the problem and serves as an enabler to generate sustainable ROI. It's time for leadership to develop a "think differently" attitude and take ownership of this burning platform - so that we can mount a coordinated effort and start building a working model for solving the problem together.