Erin Clark, and Kellie Powell practice phlebotomy during the Health Care Academy Workforce Development Programs at Singing River Health System in Pascagoula, Miss., Friday, June 24, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for staff at the Singing River Health Care system — a challenge only made harder by staffing issues.

Singing River is hoping to tackle the statewide health care worker shortage directly through its new apprenticeship programs. 

The Singing River Health Care Workforce Academy is a community-centered program on the Gulf Coast that aims to create more opportunities for people to become qualified health care professionals. 

The academy offers apprenticeships, such as a surgical tech internship and a certified nurse assistant internship, to create opportunities for people to continue working while they learn and accelerate their careers. 

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is working with Singing River on the licensed practical nurse (LPN) apprenticeship program, which hospital officials say is the first of its kind in the state. Jessica Lewis, director of human resources at the hospital, hopes that other hospitals will soon adopt the apprenticeship model to generate more career opportunities for Mississippians interested in working in the medical field. 

“We’re putting a huge investment into really training (people) and filling those gaps. The critical piece is making sure that we develop and build pipelines, because we’re going to continue to have staffing crises,” she said. “We have to go out there teaching and training our own.”  

The Singing River Health Care system will create more than 220 jobs while educating more than 1,000 students as a result of the program, according to the hospital.

Students can start in the academy as early as high school so that young people can get exposure to the medical field and make informed decisions about their career paths. Singing River has partnered with the Jackson County and Harrison County high schools to engage 11th and 12th grade students to participate in pre-apprenticeship programs and plans to expand to schools in Hancock County. 

Singing River will offer immediate employment to qualified graduates in high-demand critical specialties such as certified nurse assistants, surgical techs and licensed practical nurses.

Kellie Powell, a 33-year-old mother of three originally from Texas, has worked at Singing River as a medical assistant for nine months. She will graduate from the LPN program Sept. 2023. 

Prior to joining Singing River, she lived in New Orleans and worked for Ochsner Health System. After being displaced by Hurricane Ida, she describes coming to Mississippi as “a blessing in disguise.” 

“My children’s father and I packed for three to four days to evacuate and discovered that we couldn’t go back home after the storm,” she said.

She went to Gautier with her family. Her employers at Ochsner told her to find a branch in the Gulf Coast area and start working. 

“I found Singing River in Pascagoula and they hired me on the spot … I didn’t have any interview clothes or a car.” 

She hopes completing the program will help her pay off her student loan debt from when she attended college.  

“This program is the golden ticket. When I graduate, I will be debt free.” 

After graduating, she will sign a contract agreeing to work at Singing River for at least two years after completing the program.

The hospital plans to build a new facility to house this program, which is currently operating in a temporary location, in addition to a community health education center.

Construction for this facility near Ocean Springs Hospital will begin soon and is being paid for with a $7 million grant from the state, Lewis said. Topics explored in the community health education center will include tobacco cessation, first aid, parenting, breastfeeding and childbirth. 

There will also be an emphasis on mental health, Lewis said. All of these programs will also be offered virtually through their digital medicine program, a program made by Ochsner Hospital System, that allows individuals to manage one’s high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes insulin from your phone and provides telehealth visits.

Eric Shelton contributed to this report.


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Allison Santa-Cruz

Allison is a Jackson native and has recently joined Mississippi Today as a reporting intern. She will be working under the community health and higher education teams. Allison also currently writes for her college newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, as sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.