When Craig Switzler arrived in Ashland three years ago to take a job as an athletic trainer at Southern Oregon University, a couple things about the local job market caught his eye.
First, he noticed the health care industry represented a huge and still growing share of the local economy. And secondly, he realized pathways to many of those jobs were, to locals at least, somewhat limited.
“And so I started to talk to people about what can we do to increase health care and all of those types of things,” he said.
One possible solution, he discovered, could be offered by his new employer: a program designed to prepare students for management rather than patient-care positions such as nursing, which is at least partially covered through SOU’s partnership with Oregon Health and Science University.
After about two years of tweaking in order to find the right mix of classes, the program Switzler conceived back in 2014 — now titled Healthcare Administration — cleared its final hurdle last Thursday when the Higher Education Coordinating Commission approved it unanimously. It’s available to students beginning in fall term of the upcoming academic year and Switzler, who’s the program coordinator, is hoping for an initial cohort of about 10 students this year and for the program to eventually grow to include 30 to 50 students.
“I was both relieved and kind of anxious about it,” Switzler said of his initial reaction, “because it now means I’ve got to do a lot more work.”
It took a lot of work to get to this point, too.
Switzler began by looking at similar programs at other colleges and universities and took what he found to SOU’s business department. Two students were recruited to develop a survey that was distributed to local health care organizations. The goal of the survey was to determine what this new program — then only a rough vision — should look like, whether there was a demand and, if so, in what ways could it benefit the community.
Switzler’s hunch that the demand was there proved correct and has only become more so since he started the project. Guy Tauer, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, told the Medford Mail Tribune in April that health care will add about 2,400 jobs over the next 10 years “across a wide variety of occupations.” That includes health care management positions that require a bachelor’s or advanced degree.
Based on the survey feedback, SOU pieced together curriculum for a new degree that drew from programs all across campus, including the biology department, communications, sociology, anthropology, health and physical education, business and psychology. And the beauty of it was, all but one of the classes — a new philosophy offering — were already in place.
“They just needed a package to put them together,” Switzler said.
The arduous process of deciding which classes should be included and which shouldn’t was handled democratically, and to ensure its students would leave school employable SOU invited local health care professionals to have a big seat at the bargaining table. Eight employers helped the university craft the new program, including La Clinica, Providence Medford Medical Center, Pacifica Retirement Services and the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics (the VA).
“We worked with the regional employers in the health care field to identify the knowledge and skills, what we call the core competencies, that they would want out of program graduates in order to succeed in the types of positions this program is designed to help people fill,” said John King, SOU’s director of education, health and leadership. “And then with those identified competencies we were able to go back to our curriculum across eight different departments and identify which courses are already doing a good job teaching those.”
Jessica Wynant, a project manager for Providence who focuses on strategic outreach, integration and communication, said that when a committee at the hospital heard SOU’s proposal its reaction was strongly in favor of the new program. Later, she said, the university headed up what turned out to be a partnership, one that encouraged feedback that could answer the questions at hand: which skills were important to employers? Which weren’t so crucial? And, which classes would best equip students with those skills?
“I appreciated how much time that they took to really hear me out as a business partner to say, ‘Hey, on the other end, this is what I’m looking for to hire — I certainly want this level of education,’” Wynant said, “but included with that education we want people that are passionate about staying in the Rogue Valley, we want people who are invested here.”
Wynant added that the toughest part of the whole process may have been deciding which classes to cut. In the end, however, she said she’s confident the program will churn out folks ready to join the workforce immediately. And not all of those, she pointed out, will be 20-somethings four years removed from high school. Included in her recruitment plans are those “who have perhaps been in a trade career for years and years, or have been an executive within a different industry and perhaps they want to learn about health care and how they can shift and make a different kind of impact for our region.”
What sorts of jobs will SOU’s Healthcare Administration graduates fill initially? Switzler says they’ll likely land entry level administration jobs in the industry, such as clinic management, front desk management and nurse management.
Those who enter the program will have three concentrations from which to choose: a personal management track will emphasize human resources in the health care industry; a community health concentration will explore how group or community health care is provided, maintained and improved; and a data analytics path will prepare students to analyze and interpret data for improving health care systems.
According to SOU, students enrolled in the program will come away with a strong understanding of the industry’s terminology, ethics and safety, data management standards and communication skills.
Now that his vision is now in place, Switzler has a new challenge: recruitment. On Tuesday, he said he’d already signed up three students this week.
Of course, he's just getting started.
“Now I have to go talk to people about it,” he said. “Providence is having an education fair for their employees at the end of this month, so it’ll be now getting it out there and getting people informed about it.
“Now the work really starts.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.