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Collaborating on Workforce Development and Community Improvement

The Problem:
As hospital systems continue to embrace the idea of thinking about the health of their patients outside the walls of their facilities as well as within it, there’s been an urgent desire to address the social determinants of health and to think more holistically about the populations they serve.

The Goal:
To figure out tangible, effective, long-reaching ways for hospitals to not only take care of patients when they fall ill, but to improve the health of their communities.

Method & Implementation:
Spartanburg Regional sits just north of downtown Spartanburg, an increasingly bustling urban center that has come to life over the past couple of decades. However, just to the west of the hospital is the historic Northside mill neighborhood, an area of town which fell on hard times when the local textile mill closed in the late 1990s. Many of the properties sat abandoned or vacant, and unemployment reached as high as 50% in the area.

In recent years, a non-profit collaborative known as the Northside Development Group (NDG) has been working to revitalize the area by encouraging and supporting affordable and market-rate housing in addition to economic, educational, recreational, wellness and social opportunities. The NDG has since bought and cleared many of the vacant lots, built new schools, created community gardens and walkways, and facilitated other infrastructure improvements to the area.

They’ve also worked hard to bring down unemployment together with the community, much of it with Spartanburg Regional.

“I think the easy answer for a neighborhood redevelopment project would just be to give them a check and put a primary care clinic in, and we’re done, right? Then we can say we did our part and move on,” says Renee Romberg, Vice President of Community Health Policy and Strategy at the hospital. “But what I think we’ve learned over time is that when you take time to be present and be involved, you find all sorts of opportunities that might not be visible at first blush.”

Thanks to community “charrettes” with residents of the neighborhood, NDG and Spartanburg Regional found that many would like to work at the hospital, but few ever went through the online process to apply for jobs there.

“What we realized is for a lot of people, that’s an intimidating process,” Romberger points out. “If they have a computer, they might not have internet access. If they need extra schooling or education, they don’t understand how to even begin that process.”

So, the hospital worked with NDG to make it easier for neighborhood residents to learn about and apply for opportunities at the hospital. They hosted neighborhood-specific job fairs to answer questions and build awareness of different employment opportunities. They also dedicated an HR representative to work with NDG’s community case worker to assist any Northside applicant. They also guaranteed an in-person interview to any applicant who meets the minimum qualifications. Later, they waived a hospital policy in order to allow residents previously convicted of a crime to compete for jobs at the hospital, a humane move for a community so long mired in poverty.

“It is impossible for people to reengage if people won’t give them an opportunity,” offers Romberger. “So, for the first time in the history of our hospital system, we’re hiring people who have a record but have demonstrated that they’re not repeat offenders. I’m really so proud of that. I think that’s another way that a hospital system can make an impact that doesn’t have a thing to do with health on the surface.”

In recent years, as construction projects began proliferating in Northside, the hospital and NDG saw an additional opportunity to get residents employed. Construction jobs were prevalent, but training and certification again were obstacles. NDG and Romberger ended up working with the facilities director at the hospital to implement an apprenticeship program to train folks who had taken the necessary curriculum at community college. Supported by a scholarships and assistance from the city’s Workforce Development Board, the hospital only had to cover the cost of training their full-time employees on the teaching process so that graduates could get an international certificate that would allow them to get construction jobs across the world.

“We really have ways of supporting each other that we don’t even see on the surface,” Romberger concludes on the work that the hospital and NDG have done together. “It’s not until we start sitting down and working across boundaries to see how we as a community can do better that you start seeing the possibilities of how we can share resources.”

Unemployment has steadily dropped in the Northside as the hospital continues to hire residents. The apprenticeship program has also led to additional employment opportunities for the neighborhood.

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