by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine
“The unicorn program.” That is how a recent student with the Bennington Rescue Squad described the organization’s year-long apprenticeship program.
Bill Camarda, Deputy Executive Director, oversees the only EMS apprenticeship program registered with the state of Vermont.
Bennington rescue launched its program in December 2018 and is in the process of interviewing applicants for its third cohort, said Camarda.
The program has “opened up a new pipeline of employees," said Camarda.
Nationally, EMS organizations have struggled to find employees. According to Camarda, the work is demanding and training is expensive. EMT training costs between $800 to $1,200. The profession also comes with a high turnover rate or approximately 15 to 20 percent a year. As the labor market in Vermont has tightened, the problem has gotten worse.
With such barriers, it’s hard to attract new employees, he said. Add to this that many people who join EMS do so after switching from another full-time career. This means the profession is also asking people with full-time jobs to sacrifice their time or their money, or both, in order to train.
The Bennington rescue squad had noticed that its application numbers have dropped. At one point, according to Camarda the organization had seven full-time positions open. Operating with less than a full roster is hard on staff, he said. It leads to a lot of overtime, hurts the employees’ life/work balance, and leads to burn out.
Bennington Rescue Squad receives approximately 16 emergency calls a day, or 117 a week, said Camarda.
Along with the drop in the number of applicants Camarda said the Bennington rescue squad also noticed after training many of the students returned to the towns they were living in to either volunteer for their town rescue squad or to work for another ambulance company entirely.
It was time to change the model, said Camarda.
Camarda believes the apprenticeship program removes some of the barriers to obtaining EMT training.
Under the structure of the apprenticeship program, however, the apprenticeships are given full-time employment to go to school and then work two days for the rescue squad.
Students don’t need to choose between full-time employment and training, he said. The time apprentices spend in the classroom is considered part of their work week.
Camarda said it’s better to pick the right person and then give them the training then to try to find the right person with the training.
“We’re very lucky to have a board that saw the strategic quality of the investment,” he said.
The program is currently funded through a combination of money from the organization itself as well as the state grant that helps pay for up to 50% of the wages of the apprenticeships while they're taking the EMT course.
The program supports two cohorts a year and operates on the same timeline as the Accelerated EMT course. Applications for the most recent cohort were open until September 30. The interview process happened in October. The new apprentices will start training in December to become ambulance drivers. Their EMT training will being in January, said Camarda. The Rescue Squad anticipates hiring two to four apprentices from each cohort depending on workforce needs.
The grant through the Vermont Training Program “made a big difference,” Camarda said. Their money is helping the program get off the ground and prove itself, he added.
Typically the Bennington rescue squad finds its employees through a series of quarterly advertisements. According to Camarda the process is a lengthy one with a lot of logistics.
“We work on a consensus-based hiring model,” he said.
This means every squad member has veto power over who the organization hires.
The idea for the apprenticeship program sparked after members of the Rescue Squad attended a meeting at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center. Staff from the Vermont Department of Labor outlined for the audience what it took to launch an apprenticeship program.
“It was nowhere near as complicated as we thought it was,” Camarda said.
Key points, Camarda learned, included:
Designating a supervisor to oversee and manage the program.
Provide applicants with a clear outline of how the program works and its pay structure. Apprentices start at $12/hour. Pay increases to $15/hour as they obtain higher levels of training and experience. The program lasts approximately one year.
Ensure the organization has a clear path from apprenticeship to hire — or what careers are available outside the program after the training ends.
Camarda reminded organizations that they don’t need to start an apprenticeship program from scratch. Models exist across the country both inside and outside the EMS field.
He warns that such a program takes investment both time and money. It’s worth it though, Camarda continued. For example, when the squad was understaffed, approximately 30 percent of what it spent on salaries were spend on overtime. Burn out was also high. As the staffing levels have improved, less money is going toward overtime and the staff have a better work/life balance.
Crucial to the program’s success is buy-in. Camarda stresses organizations must have the whole organization excited and committed to the project from its board of directors, to its employees, to its community partners.
Camarda said the administration developed the program over a few months before presenting it to the board of directors for approval.
So far the program has received positive feedback.
Two apprentices — now employees — from the first cohort have recently started their advanced EMT training, Camarda said.
One surprise outcome is that many of the apprentices have advanced faster than expected.
The VDOL requires the apprenticeship program to run for one year, said Camarda. Bennington Rescue advances its employees based on a combination of training hours and competency, meaning apprentices receive a combination of classroom and field experience.
Camarda had found that because of the program’s level of emersion, students have a high pass rate and sharp learning curve. Students who started last year passed their EMT course ahead of schedule.
“If that’s one of our biggest problems, we’re exceptionally happy with that,” he said.
To learn more about the Bennington Rescue Squad’s apprenticeship program, visit: www.benningtonrescue.org/apprenticeship