Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on the future of healthcare work. All stories in this series can be found here.
Economic anxieties need not correlate with a high unemployment rate. Take it from business leaders across multiple U.S. industries: Their biggest challenge is not a lack of job openings for thousands of qualified candidates — it’s a lack of candidates for thousands of openings.
HR professionals are used to hearing about skill shortages in manufacturing and other blue-collar work, but perhaps more understated are gaps in the STEM fields.
Careers in nursing and medicine, which often require years of additional, specialized education are hard to fill. Physician assistant openings were one of the most in-demand fields near the end of 2016, according to the American Staffing Association. But hospitals aren’t just struggling to find people to staff operating rooms. They face a much bigger challenge in a lack of leadership skills.
HR Dive/Healthcare Dive spoke with staffing firm Leaders For Today’s CEO Bill Haylon about the root of leadership gaps in healthcare, and how hospital HR departments can confront the problem. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HR Dive: When hospitals come to a healthcare staffing firm like Leaders For Today, what are they asking for?
Bill Haylon: What we're really doing is helping them find people who have particular sets of skills. We provide staffing on an interim basis. A hospital or healthcare system comes to us and says, “we really need somebody who can fix and lead our case management department,” “we need somebody who's got certain technical skills and leadership skills.” We're not actually training individuals, we're finding people who fill those slots.
We're going out and finding people, who they can either hire full time or on an interim basis. We'll look for, on average, a little more than six spots, and we'll start from a pool of people that we have that we've worked with before.
We're not really doing training, but training is one of the problems in the healthcare world.
HR Dive: When you look for potential staffers, what kind of skills do they have? What stands out the most to the healthcare systems you work with?
Haylon: There are certain skills that go across all positions, and there are certain skills that are specific to a position because we can hire for. For example, we have a team that focuses on OR people, while others focus on case management, hospital finance, physician management, practice management, etc.
Across the board, what we focus on is, first and foremost, trying to find people who have been steady with or who have stayed with an organization for some period of time and developed within that. In other words, we try and stay away from what we call "jumpers” — people that have a job for a year, two years, and then try and go on their next role.
Unfortunately, that's counter to what occurs in the industry. People in the hospital industry jump all the time.
We try and get some stability in their job, because we believe they learn more that way [when it comes to] both the technical skills and leadership skills. Of course, you look for the basic things: education, undergraduate work, master's degree and other certifications.
You're trying to vet the person along, so a lot of time you’re talking about different situations, different experiences, how they've handled them in the past or how they might handle them in the future. It could be a difficult position to deal with, a union situation, a quality situation, a safety situation. And you try to understand what their thought-making process is.
HR Dive: What skills are hardest to come by in the medical world, given that a lot of industries are seeing skills shortages?
Haylon: There's an enormous shortage of talent within the hospital industry in all key levels. It was going on before Obamacare, and now with Obamacare and more people being covered, each organization is seeing a big uptick in the number of patients they see. It’s really gotten to be a very critical moment.
The most difficult job category is the O.R., the second hardest is case management and the third hardest is physician practice management.
From a skill set perspective, it's leadership. Most of those in leadership positions are people who were nurses or doctors. When you go to school, you do not learn about financial statements, management skills or leadership. You're learning how to suture, avoid infections and open up rib cages.
You take a person who has been a staff nurse for [a certain number] of years, and they decide they want to go into a leadership role. Because there's a shortage of people, they are put in those spots well before they're ready. They don't have any training; hospitals do not train people for career development or leadership, and so you're just kind of winging it. You get people who are very quickly over their head in their positions.
HR Dive: What can hospitals change about the way they operate to help develop those skills, or is that simply not possible given their bandwidth?
Haylon: They make it harder than it is. The reality is that hospitals consolidate, so they're parts of bigger systems. You have a director in the O.R. who could be managing 440 people. That's a lot of people. This was the case for one hospital we worked with, and the person running that OR had been a staff nurse and morphed to this role. But her [previous] role had been running a small hospital where she had 30 people, and now she's up to 440 people, and it's over her head.
So the reality is that they need to start thinking about different skill sets, and the obvious one is an MBA. When you're the director of a 440-person O.R., you're not seeing patients anymore. You're doing hiring and scheduling. You're developing quality programs and safety programs. You're trying to get the surgeons on board. You're never seeing a patient; that's a different set of skills.
You don't need to be clinical, you need to be a manager and a leader. It could be an MBA, it could be a master's in health. But you need more than clinical training.
So what hospitals do [by recruiting for a certain skillset] is totally reactive as opposed to being proactive and developing people.
HR Dive: Do you see a shift in terms of the skills that physicians and other professionals are being taught in school?
Haylon: You're being taught technical skills, clinical skills, whatever your specialty is. You go to medical school, do your residency, maybe followed by a fellowship, and it's all technical skills. Physicians [are also] getting way more specialized than they used to be.
Typically the people who have jobs [in healthcare leadership] have gone and gotten additional training and education on their own.
Physicians and nurses are not trained in school to run big organizations. Plus, they're doing research, and they've got to handle anybody that comes into the OR and the ER. It's hard enough to get training for it, and it's beyond belief if you don't have training.
HR Dive: What else should hospital systems be mindful of when looking for leadership in the medical workforce?
Haylon: When you look at survey data from across the hospital industry, you see that people are staying in positions for incredibly short periods of time. Forty percent of people right now in key positions in hospitals have been in their position two years or less. Another 40% expect to leave in the next two years. What happens is that hospitals have a hole, and they need better leaders, so they poach from somebody else.
So the director of a surgical department will be a manager at a small hospital, then become a manager at a bigger hospital, then a manager at a bigger hospital, then a director at a small hospital, then a director at a bigger hospital, and finally a director at a bigger hospital. They just keep poaching from each other.
The problem is it's the same people who are circling through. The people you're hiring never had the time to put in place good, quality programs, [including] safety programs and productivity programs, because they're not there long enough. They can't make it stick in just two years; these are very complicated things.
And so that's the result of what you're talking about. The lack of training and development shows itself in this poaching and job hopping in the hospital world. It is like no industry you have ever seen before.
In other industries, an enormous amount of resources are put into training, so people stay in those industries and move up. You take up greater responsibilities, but they invest a lot in you as a developing person. The hospitals invest almost nothing. It's up to the individual to go and figure it out on your own. Get your MBA, take this class, get a certification from the hospital association. But you're not developing your own people.
Other organizations develop their own people because they want to be the best at what they do — they want to differentiate themselves. The only way they can do that is to develop their own people. Because hospitals don't do that, there really is no differentiation, and hence, they struggle.
So this lack of training and the lack of development ends up creating an industry where everybody knows they're going to jump all the time. You've got hospitals that have hired their sixth CEO in seven years. So the question is: If you're a patient and you have knowledge of this, would you want to go to that hospital?
If you have that sort of instability at the top spot, then it's going to trickle all the way down. Healthcare is complicated; it takes a while to figure out orders in place that are going to work. If they have quality problems, or safety problems, you can't fix them that quickly. You've got to have someone who understands the lay of the land and can make a difference.