BILLINGS — Billings nursing students will receive seven apprenticeships at St. John's United nursing home, working to further their education with the goal to finish with no student loan debt and the program will be open to more students, according to St. John's officials.
The apprenticeship new program at St. John's was created with the help of a $1 million gift from the Bruno and Evelyne Betti Foundation of Lacey, Washington. The program will be named in the foundation's honor.
“This is a partnership to make sure that for four years, there are students who are working right here at St. John’s United in CNA jobs, in LPN jobs and RN jobs and while they pursue their bachelor degree in nursing. They will then be qualified to work in (other) hospitals under their programs," said David Trost, St. John's president and CEO.
The St. John's nurse apprenticeship program is part of a larger network of apprenticeships across the state organized with the help of Montana Youth Apprenticeship Partnership and Reach Higher Montana. Right now, the groups focus on forming relationships with employers and apprentices wishing to go into the health care and information technology sectors.
At St. John's, the apprenticeship program will cater primarily to high school students, Trost said. As students sign up, they can gain experience through work at St. John's. After high school graduation, students can then apply for the nursing programs at Miles Community College or Montana State University Billings to continue their education, while still working at St. Johns.
As the apprentices work, their hours are taken off their tuition bill, leaving less debt for the student upon the end of their education.
“I see too many students who drop out after their first year and then they still have college debt and they didn’t even get a degree. So this program aims to not only benefit an incredible need in our health care sector but also to provide the students who participate in our apprenticeship program the ability to graduate without any college debt," Trost said.
Also, students won't have to stay working at St. Johns at the close of their apprenticeship if they choose, Trost said. Students would usually be required to stay with the health care institution that helped pay for their education for a certain amount of time before they were free to look for work elsewhere.
“This is a partnership to make sure that for four years, there are students who are working right here at St. John’s United in CNA jobs, in LPN jobs and RN jobs and while they pursue their bachelor degree in nursing, they will then be qualified to work in (other) hospitals under their programs," Trost said.
There is a high demand for nurses in health care, Trost said. But it's often tough to attract them to work at St. John's.
St. John's is primarily funded from public money or money from the government, Trost said.
"So our ability to compete for that same workforce is hard because we can’t pay like the hospitals do,” Trost said.
St. John's isn't able to pay big salaries like the other Billings hospitals, but they all hire from the same pool of talent. Trost said the program hopes to "create a new pool of talent.”
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry serves as another member of the Montana Youth Apprenticeship Partnership. Kathleen O'Leary, deputy commissioner for the department, said the health care industry is growing in Montana.
“The healthcare industry overall, in terms of number of jobs, is the largest industry sector in Montana and it’s estimated that in this sector alone, we will be adding about 1,000 jobs a year. It’s important to meet that need with an educated and skilled workforce," O'Leary said.
Over 90 percent of apprentices who complete the Montana Youth Apprenticeship Partnership stay to work in Montana, O'Leary said.
According to Trost, the plan to establish the program has been in the works for two years. The COVID-19 pandemic was not the reason for its creation, he said.
The St. John's nurse apprenticeship program also received donations from the Billings Clinic Foundation, and St. Vincent Foundation, together totaling $310,000. The Bruno and Evelyne Betti Foundation added a $500,000 matching grant to the program. The Billings hospitals' money went toward that match.
Trost said the apprenticeship program has the money to continue many years and would only fund raise if the program were to expand.
“We will be able to endow this program so that the only purpose for coming back to the community for more contributions is to grow the program. At the moment, we have the ability to sustain this program for years and years to come. But we’ll anticipate that we’ll grow," Trost said.