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December 2014

Training Program Helps Vets Gain HIT Skills
By Fred Bazzoli
For The Record
Vol. 26 No. 12 P. 10

Elizabeth Michalski's IT job prospects were in need of a jump-start. She had six years of experience in basic IT work in a church, but to secure an IT position that could better support her, she knew she needed to update her skills.

For Michalski, a veteran who returned to the United States from the military in the 1980s, the EN-Abled Veterans Program at Rush University Medical Center was a godsend. The program, which provides six-month internships for veterans or their family members, offers training and career support in HIT.

Rush's program brought Michalski up to speed with current HIT practices and assisted her in finding her true calling: servers. "At Rush, I learned how to build, install, and configure thin-client computers throughout the campus. I started exploring servers in the program, and I fell in love with that," says Michalski, who's been working on servers firsthand and shadowing experienced IT personnel with expertise in that area. "This program was perfect for me because I can learn things on the fly, and learning about servers is really exciting to me.

"We're making a difference in people's lives here at Rush, and I feel honored to be a part of the program," she continues. "I'm very engaged in outreach and social justice, and this program goes in sync with that. I'd be thrilled to continue in the same kind of setting, something with service in its mission statement."

A Logical Connection
Military veterans need jobs, and health care organizations have a desperate need for IT staff. This seems like an easy connection. However, it's not that simple. Veterans return home from service with various life experiences and challenges that make it difficult for them to transition to the civilian workforce.

There are the unseen wounds as well. At least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have posttraumatic stress disorder. Thousands have returned from those operations with traumatic brain injuries. The traumas and fears have profound effects, says Jaime Parent, associate CIO and vice president of IT operations at Rush, who developed the EN-Abled Veterans Program.

"I know of one vet who would flash back if he saw an empty can on the street, remembering an experience with an IED [improvised explosive device]," says Parent, who is a retired Air Force veteran. "Another would survey the roofs of other buildings before stepping outside—a habit he learned in the military to avoid snipers."

Understanding these challenges and working with returning vets and their families is at the heart of the EN-Abled Veterans Program. The initiative is part of a larger effort at Rush called the Road Home Program, which is intended to provide support, counseling, and health services for veterans and their families. With the grant-supported program on the horizon last fall, it made sense to have a program to equip vets with IT training that they could parlay into a health care career.

"Helping veterans goes beyond the surgeries and therapies," Parent says. "They have their whole lives ahead of them. I can't tell you how many times I would see a service member at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, sitting in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette, listening to their iPod. And they had no idea what lies ahead."

The EN-Abled Veterans Program didn't attract grant money for the concept program to equip vets with IT experience, but it received commitments for training and certification programs through partnerships with supportive IT vendors. Parent then identified an ongoing project at Rush that would require repeatable and trainable IT skills: replacing existing PCs with thin-client computers that use a virtual desktop infrastructure.

Last September, Rush hired its first platoon of vets for the six-month program. The four trainees were paid $12.50 per hour and worked flexible 16-hour weeks; schedules were worked around other jobs, medical appointments, or existing educational commitments. "We looked for veterans who had some IT background; if you have no IT background, this environment can quickly overwhelm you," Parent says.

Within weeks after entering the program, the veterans were asked what facet of IT most interested them. "One was interested in security, so we had him shadow a security specialist. Another wanted to study Web development. One said, 'I need a job quickly; can I do the help desk?' We maintained maximum flexibility," Parent says. "What we offer is an opportunity. We don't guarantee a job but offer a lot of flexibility and a lot of tools at their disposal. In the last two months of the program, veterans get assistance in improving their résumés and interviewing performance—skills that most veterans have not had to worry about in their lives in the military."

Extending the Program
The EN-Abled Veterans Program has gained support from Chicago-area military health care organizations operated by the VA and the Department of Defense. In certain cases, Rush extends the program to veterans' families. For example, if a veteran is struggling with difficult issues and has not yet fully recovered, family members may be offered a position, a policy that goes beyond what current VA programs can legally do.

The program plans to further demonstrate its value by accepting veterans who have significant challenges that make it difficult to find employment. "Anybody can hire the typical person who isn't struggling, but when you have a vet struggling with deep-seated emotional issues, that's a contributing factor to why they've not been hired," Parent says. "We want to try the program with them because that's the subset of the population that's going to have the hardest time getting a job."

The specifics of the program are being outlined so that the approach can be adopted by other health care organizations. This may multiply the effects of the program and meet two significant needs at once.

The EN-Abled Veterans Program works cooperatively with Rush's Road Home Program, a new center that offers a comprehensive program of diagnostic, treatment, and referral services at Rush and via a network of collaborating community agencies. Funded by several philanthropic organizations, the center's goal is to ensure veterans and their loved ones get what they need to ease or overcome the effects of their military service experience.

"You'd think that coming home would be the easy part, but transitioning from military to civilian life is often a challenge," says Mark Pollack, MD, the program's director and chairman of Rush's department of psychiatry. "We want to make sure that veterans and their families receive the kind of care that they need and have so dearly earned and get connected to resources that they can use to take control of their health, jobs, and social and family lives."

— Fred Bazzoli is senior director of communications at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.