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Mandee Polonsky of Northwestern Medicine: Championing Partnerships in Chicagoland



Mandee Polonsky

Director of External Partnerships at NM Academy

Northwestern Medicine


Meet Mandee Polonsky, Director of External Partnerships at NM Academy and a driving force at Northwestern Medicine. Her journey, from Teach for America to spearheading educational and community initiatives, showcases her passion for building transformative partnerships. Mandee's dedication to equity and access has shaped educational and career opportunities at Northwestern Medicine, demonstrating the vital role of relationships with workforce development partners.



What is your role at Northwestern Medicine?


As the Director of External Partnerships at NM Academy, my primary focus is on developing educational and career pipelines, starting from high school outreach programs in Chicago. This includes co-managing partnerships with agencies like Cara Collective, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, and Teamwork Englewood for community recruitment and hiring along with our Talent Acquisition team. I've been in this role for over six years, working to create opportunities for internships and jobs within our system.


What was your first job? What age were you when you started?


My first job at 14 involved a mix of roles. I worked at a jewelry store (commuting by bike), served as a restaurant hostess, and babysat. This early experience taught me the value of juggling multiple tasks and the importance of hustle, a work ethic that I'm now trying to instill in my children.


What was your educational path like? Did it mirror that of your family?


I grew up in Northbrook and attended Washington University in St. Louis right after high school. Following that, I spent two years in New York with Teach for America (TFA), which was a transformative experience. I then returned to further my education with a Master's in Public Policy at the University of Chicago's Harris School. While my parents are both college graduates, I took a step further in pursuing an advanced degree, so my path has been a slight extension of the educational foundation they laid.

My career, in hindsight, makes more sense in reverse. It might not have seemed linear at the time, but each step built on the last one to bring me to where I am now.

What was your first full-time job? How did you secure it? Tell me about your career progression.


My first full-time job was with Teach for America in 2000. It was an incredibly formative experience, and I even keep in touch with one of my students who's now nearly 30 and working at Fordham University.


During college, I interned at Christopher House, tutoring teen moms and teaching ESL, which led me to join Teach for America. This experience opened my eyes to educational disparities and guided my career path. After Teach For America, I earned a Masters in Public Policy, worked at Chicago Public Schools for nine years, then transitioned to a startup and later United Way. This journey taught me that while education is crucial, poverty and inequity are associated with many factors, including health.


My career, in hindsight, makes more sense in reverse. It might not have seemed linear at the time, but each step built on the last one to bring me to where I am now.


Who have been your primary mentors in progressing your career?


My mentors have been Beth Swanson, now CEO of A Better Chicago, and Richard Jones. Beth, my first boss at Chicago Public Schools, has been a significant influence and support throughout my career. She's been fantastic in offering guidance and insight. Richard, whom I met during my time at United Way and who previously led Metropolitan Family Services, has also been a wonderful mentor. I've been fortunate to have had many great bosses who have positively impacted my career journey.


What obstacles have you had to overcome? What have been keys to your success?


I consider myself quite fortunate overall. My role has evolved into what I humorously call the “chief nudge” of the organization, where I often challenge the status quo by asking questions like, "How can we add more internship opportunities?" or "Why aren't we implementing fair chance hiring?"

Fair chance hiring is designed to give justice-involved individuals greater employment opportunities by considering a candidate's criminal record only after they have been interviewed and deemed qualified for a role, and by assessing each person's past circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

The primary challenge for me has been navigating the complexities of large organizations, which inherently have their unique set of hurdles and bureaucratic processes.



Building strong relationships has been key to navigating complex organizations. I've been lucky to have a supportive family and partner, which has been vital for my work-life balance and success. My passion has always guided my professional choices, making roles like community giving at United Way more effective and fulfilling. Currently, at Northwestern, I'm engaged in projects to further our talent pipelines in the communities we serve, where my enthusiasm aligns with meaningful community goals. This synergy of personal passion and professional objectives has been central to my journey.


Tell me what it's like to work at Northwestern Medicine. What makes it special or unique?


At Northwestern Medicine, there’s a remarkable sense of dedication and longevity among the staff. We're deeply rooted in a culture of servant leadership, emphasizing patient care while strongly focusing on education and community involvement. Our team is always eager to mentor the next generation, be it through student engagement, volunteering, or educational initiatives. With a mission that extends beyond healthcare to educational and community engagement, working here offers a unique and fulfilling experience for our extensive team of over 35,000 employees.

We really focus on aligning job opportunities with individual passions and interests, ensuring that there are diverse career paths available across different areas for those just starting out in their professional journey.

What are your goals within the organization over the next few years?


Over the next few years, my goal is to strengthen our youth pipeline programs, focusing on critical areas like respiratory therapy where recruitment has been challenging. We're launching a campaign, “Jobs one, two, and three,” to guide new joiners through their career progression at Northwestern, utilizing resources like our $10,000 annual education benefit for full time employees. This initiative aims to meet the expectations of the younger generation, many of whom are eager for rapid career advancement, while also addressing our team's staffing needs.


Additionally, we're implementing an intensive academic advising initiative, initially piloted for nurses. A recent lunch and learn session, attended by a hundred employees from diverse roles interested in nursing, highlighted the need for clearer guidance on career advancement.


What are examples of entry-level jobs at Northwestern Medicine that don't require a four-year degree, or maybe no degree at all?


We have a range of entry-level jobs that don't require a four-year degree. There are opportunities in customer service roles in patient access, as well as hands-on positions in patient transport, environmental services, and hospitality. Our IT department also offers innovative entry-level roles. We really focus on aligning job opportunities with individual passions and interests, ensuring that there are diverse career paths available across different areas for those just starting out in their professional journey.


What qualifications do you require for these jobs?


In our entry-level roles, a high school diploma is usually enough. For those eyeing a clinical career, we have quick-start programs like Certified Nurse Assistant or Patient Care Technician, some just five weeks long. There’s also a medical assistant training program, about nine months, but we're working to make it shorter. We're also finding ways for roles that typically need a four-year degree, like respiratory therapists, to start earlier. For example, student technicians can begin working while they're still in school. Plus, we're updating job descriptions to be more inclusive, focusing on potential rather than unnecessary experience, so more people with just a high school diploma can jump right in.


What precludes an applicant from being considered for an entry-level job?


We don’t have any automatic disqualifiers. Each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis. During the onboarding process, background checks are conducted, but these are handled individually by our legal team. We don't conduct credit checks, but we do perform drug screenings, with the recent update that cannabis use is not a disqualifying factor for all roles.


What challenges do you face in finding applicants for these jobs?


Across the industry, recruiting for demanding roles like patient care technicians presents challenges due to the job's nature and modest initial salary. We address these hurdles by financially supporting students in certification programs and compensating them during training. This approach is particularly crucial for roles requiring extensive training, such as medical assisting. To build a future talent pipeline, we engage high school students and provide comprehensive information on our workforce programs on our website. Adapting our recruitment strategies is key to overcoming these challenges.

You can find all our Workforce programs in one place by visiting www.nm.org/workforce.

What are ways you source entry-level talent?


In sourcing entry-level talent, we lean heavily on our community partnerships and job fairs. A major source of referrals comes from the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, and we've also had great success with partners like Cara Collective and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. We're active in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, collaborating with organizations like Bright Star Community Outreach. Our campus recruitment team, though not large, does incredible work in reaching out through various job fairs and college visits.


Have any partnerships formed during your tenure at Northwestern Medicine? Could you discuss how they started and evolved?


We've transformed our partnership strategy at Northwestern Medicine to better support community hiring. With Brian Stewart joining as Recruitment and Community Services Manager, we've shifted our focus towards staff retention and broadening our partnerships, including both major organizations like St. Sabina and smaller local groups. Brian's expertise helped us address staffing in less accessible areas and improve our hiring process, enabling us to engage with a wider array of communities more effectively.



What are the advantages of working with these partners? What solutions do they provide? How do they help you overcome challenges and obstacles?


Partnering with agencies streamlines our recruitment process, allowing for effective coordination when challenges with candidates arise. This collaboration leads to more successful outcomes, especially when addressing candidate issues or providing interview feedback.


Another key benefit is that it allows us to educate our team about the broader impact and importance of community recruitment. This includes showing how it benefits not just our teams but also the wider community. We have strong leadership support for this initiative, but the challenge is in shifting hiring managers' mindsets towards more inclusive and diverse recruitment strategies. Our focus is on spreading this message and encouraging new approaches to recruitment within the organization.


Has Northwestern Medicine calculated the cost or benefit of working with these partners?


Yes, we've tracked recruitment numbers year over year from our partnerships. This was partly spurred by Senator Durbin's HEAL initiative, which required us to examine our impact on issues like violence reduction through hiring and supply chain practices. We've been actively addressing these areas, focusing on workforce development and diversifying our supply chain. As we expand sites like Bronzeville, we're also mindful of hiring diverse contract workers and construction teams.


How long does it take between connecting with these partners and getting someone employed?


Not long. With our established system and dedicated staff, integrating new partners into our employment process is quite efficient. We maintain a special application link for candidates from our partners, and our team holds bi-weekly calls with these partners to discuss candidate progress, including who's moving forward, who needs additional support, and attendance issues. The main limiting factor is our team size. While the system is effective, adding more partners would require expanding our team.


What are the challenges of working with these agencies and partners?


Our main challenge with partners is getting our hiring managers fully on board. We're focusing on educating our teams about the importance of being responsive, especially for job fairs and interviews. Hiring managers play a key role, so their cooperation is crucial. We also face a staffing challenge on our own team. More staff would mean better candidate screening and the ability to handle more partnerships.

Chicago employers, including us as a major one, have a significant role in addressing poverty and inequality through employment opportunities.

Another area we're looking into is why employees leave. We want to understand the factors behind turnover better, whether it's commute issues or workplace biases. It's all about fine-tuning our approach to ensure our workforce development efforts are as effective and sustainable as possible.


What services do you wish you could get from an agency or partner that you currently do not?


Regarding services from our partners, we could really use help with tracking employee retention data. Right now, agencies don't always get this info, so we end up pulling it from payroll to see who's still with us after 60 and 90 days. It's not a big issue with the agencies, just an extra step for us. Luckily, we've sorted this out recently. Generally, we keep up a great, open line of communication with our partners, which helps us smoothly tackle these kinds of challenges.


Where do you get information about innovative hiring, retention, and talent practices?


I'm part of the Chicagoland Healthcare Workforce Collaborative's steering committee, which is a fantastic resource for learning from other systems. We're also involved in the Corporate Coalition, where we're launching the Fair Chance Hiring Initiative. Additionally, we've collaborated with Cara on several initiatives, including creative recruitment strategies in our supply chain and IT departments. Another source is the Civic Committee, which introduced us to the Community Violence Initiative. Essentially, it's a mix of word-of-mouth and involvement in larger citywide consortiums that keeps us informed and innovative.

Diversity is crucial not just for your employees, but also for your clients.

How, if at all, do you believe Chicagoland employers should contribute to addressing poverty and inequality in Chicago neighborhoods?


Chicago employers, including us as a major one, have a significant role in addressing poverty and inequality through employment opportunities. Employment can be a solution to many city issues, like the migrant crisis. At our organization, we focus on social determinants of health, considering how various life factors impact health and striving to prevent emergency room reliance. Offering job opportunities, like our youth pipeline programs, is a key part of this. Beyond medical resources, we provide community grants, healthcare screenings, and encourage staff volunteerism. Embodying a servant leader approach, we're dedicated to contributing to a better city, which in turn makes us a stronger institution.


What else do you think employers should be trying? 


I believe that apprenticeship programs are key. Collaborating with City Colleges can provide practical work experiences and earn-while-you-learn opportunities. These apprenticeships, especially when part-time, can effectively transition students into regular employment, addressing staffing shortages and pipeline issues. Partnering with institutions for Department of Labor certified apprenticeships adds value, and identifying roles that can be part-time is crucial. 

If you would like to learn more about apprenticeships, check out the Chicago Apprenticeship Network.

What experiences have you had that help you empathize with entry level talent at your organization? 


My first job in CPS (Chicago Public Schools) taught me the importance of relationships in large organizations. While there are benefits to working in such settings, challenges like slow processes are common. Learning to navigate these complexities at CPS was invaluable. I realized that building connections, whether with the school janitor or clerk, can make all the difference. Similarly, at Northwestern Medicine, knowing the right people in legal or communications can expedite processes. Essentially, fostering good relationships is key to success in any environment, and it's a lesson that's particularly relevant in a city like Chicago.


Why is your role in fostering partnerships and enhancing job opportunities for Chicagoans personally important to you?


Being a Chicago native with deep roots in the city, enhancing job opportunities here is personally significant to me. I love Chicago and am raising my kids in this vibrant city. However, I recognize that opportunities aren’t equally accessible to everyone. I was fortunate to grow up in a supportive neighborhood, and I believe everyone deserves similar chances. It's important to me that we, as an organization and I personally, work towards providing equal opportunities in employment and healthcare. Making a difference in this way matters deeply to me.


What advice would you give to employers interested in engaging with the workforce ecosystem for successful navigation?


It’s very important to have a diverse workforce. Diversity is crucial not just for your employees, but also for your clients. I was moved by [Deputy Mayor] Jen Johnson's personal story involving Northwestern, where during COVID, her mixed-race family faced a dilemma about who should visit her hospitalized father to ensure he received the best care. This situation highlighted how having a workforce that reflects the diversity of the community can profoundly impact patient experience. This example underscores why representation matters – it improves engagement, fosters trust, and enhances the overall experience for both clients and staff.


Employers should see workforce diversity as a tangible way to make a real difference in their community and beyond. It's not just about filling roles; it's about building an organization that mirrors the diversity of the city it serves.

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