Thomas College in Waterville, pictured in April 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Thomas College is offering discounted graduate courses to Redington-Fairview General Hospital medical workers and other hospital employees in a new partnership meant to strengthen and retain the workforce in central Maine.

The college in Waterville and Skowhegan-based hospital with 800 staff members signed a year-long agreement last month, said Bethany Shalit, director of education at Redington-Fairview. For those who choose to enroll at the college, the first graduate course will be free, with a 10 percent tuition discount for additional courses throughout 2022 and 2023.

For Redington-Fairview, the partnership will allow hospital workers to grow their skills and develop professionally within the company, which hopefully encourages them to remain in central Maine and contribute to the economy, Shalit said. New students could boost graduate enrollment and diversify the population at Thomas College by attracting adults already contributing to the workforce, said Kristina Lilley, assistant director of graduate recruiting.

The agreement also falls in line with others the school has with financial technology service provider WEX Inc. in Portland, the Maine Housing Authority in Augusta and another coming down the pipeline, she said.

“The workforce landscape is always changing,” Shalit said, adding that the course offerings allow the hospital to stay competitive. “It seems like there’s always new skills in demand, and skills you learned five, 10 years ago need to be refreshed. In order to attract top talent and retain that top talent, we need to give them opportunities to expand.”

Redington-Fairview serves 30,000 residents in Somerset County, Lilley said. Even if employees eventually leave the hospital, the more knowledge they have to contribute to the workforce, the better, she said.

Everett Flannery, right, a paramedic with Redington-Fairview General Hospital EMS, places a bandage on Craig Moore’s arm after his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Skowhegan State Fair on Aug. 20, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The partnership is also focused on making professional development and advanced education more accessible, financially and logistically. The eight-week courses are offered online, and hospital employees can enroll as part- or full-time students.

“People are juggling a lot, and we saw this through the pandemic,” Lilley said. “Work-life balance is something we could all probably improve on. We tried to lean on the graduate programs to make them more affordable and ensure they are doable so people can manage their time.”

Redington-Fairview employees who are accepted into the program can take up to three graduate courses before they have to enroll in a graduate program, Shalit said. “They can get their toes wet to see if going back to school works for them,” she said.

The hospital offers a tuition-assistance program, which can be paired with aid from Thomas College, she said.

Hospital employees who choose not to enroll in a graduate program can receive a 15-credit certificate of advanced study, which would count toward a master’s degree if they want to pursue one later, Lilley said.

She has seen the most interest in Thomas College’s Master of Business Administration and health care management programs.

Tom McAdam, CEO of Kennebec Behavioral Health who also works as an adjunct instructor at Thomas College, teaches a course called “Health Care Reimbursement” that focuses on policy, funding and how the U.S. health care system functions.

“Health care jobs are good jobs,” he said. “We need people that have quantitative and qualitative-type skills. People who understand the money part, but also people in health care and leadership roles who are good problem-solvers.”

As health care evolves and becomes more complex, workers need to keep up with the changes and grow their management and technical skills so they can serve their communities well, McAdam said.

Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan. Credit: Courtesy of Redington-Fairview General Hospital

Hospital workers who make a good living in central Maine might also be more inclined to stay and offer aid to residents locally so they don’t have to travel to places such as Bangor and Portland, he said.

Clinical and non-clinical staff members have expressed interest in courses, specifically those in health care management and human resource management, Shalit said.

Primarily nurses tend to take advantage of tuition assistance programs, she said, but the partnership allows staff from a wide range of Redington-Fairview departments to expand their knowledge.

Chelsea Hertlein, a precertification specialist at Redington-Fairview, is implementing a new hospital-wide computer system, but the Master of Business Administration in Health Care Management piqued her interest.

“As a single mom with a career, what interested me the most was that the programs are designed for working professionals,” she said.

Hertlein, who has a degree in health care administration, plans to enroll for the fall or winter term because she thinks it’ll help her become a better peer and leader. Knowing she can try a course without incurring debt is important, she said.

“I never thought I would obtain a bachelor’s degree and be doing something that I absolutely love at a place that I feel really values my input,” she said. “So I feel like a graduate degree is the next step, and with an opportunity like this, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”