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Michele Smith of Advocate Aurora Health: Innovating Healthcare while Investing in People



Michele Smith, Ed.D

Director of Workforce and Team Member Development

Advocate Aurora Health


Michele Smith, Ed.D, Director of Workforce and Team Member Development at Advocate Aurora Health, is executing innovative workforce strategies across the system. Read on to learn more about how Michele’s career journey has come full circle, allowing her to combine her interests in both education and workforce development.




Tell me about your role at Advocate Aurora Health.


I am the Director of Workforce and Team Member Development. Our team employs a variety of innovative solutions to address talent shortages for clinical and non-clinical roles. Using both short and long-term strategies, we provide opportunities for our current teammates to be promoted or move into a position along a career path. Similarly, we also work with individuals from the communities that we serve to find employment and career opportunities within our organization.


What was your educational path? Did it mirror that of your parents or family members?


Life truly does have a way of setting you on the path that you should be on and unfolding in unexpected ways. When I first went to college, my focus was on nursing, and I had my first clinical training at Advocate Christ Hospital. I shifted my focus and received my bachelor’s degree in Human Resources and later a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Training and Development. And lastly, I received my doctoral degree in Education. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but I appreciate the experience because I’ve learned a lot about myself and have truly been able to develop my craft.


My parents did not go to college when I was younger. My father was a self-taught programmer who spent his career as a software engineer. My mother spent her entire career working at a major utility company in Illinois. This January, at the age of 70, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work. My parents raised me and my siblings with the belief that there is no reward without taking risks. That is something that I’ve always used as my north star, guiding my career.


What makes your experience working at Advocate Aurora Health special or unique?


Coming to Advocate has been a marriage of all of my experiences into one job. Every day, I serve in a role that combines workforce development and education, two areas that I love. My journey has naturally come full circle, having started my clinical training at Advocate Christ Hospital, and now working in human resources at the system level.

As an organization, career mobility is extremely important to us. The more opportunities we can provide for our teammates, the more likely they are to stay with us and value their experience.

One of the greatest things about working for Advocate is that we all genuinely look out for one another, want to see each other do well, and seek to create opportunities for everyone to reach their highest potential. The individuals that I encounter on any given day are truly good people. It is important to be surrounded by people who are going in the same direction. When you’re not, it leads to chaos, and that ultimately impacts the patients that we serve.


What is Advocate Aurora Health hoping to achieve in the next few years?


We want to be at the forefront of innovation in healthcare and meet the needs of our patients. We recently merged with Atrium Health, and our guiding principle throughout this integration process has been to do more, to do it better, and to do it faster. Everything we accomplish is a means to that end: ensuring that we are of service to the community and their healthcare needs are being met.



What significant challenges is the organization facing at this moment?


For all health systems, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many issues in healthcare. Many inequities were exacerbated by the pandemic, and the impact of that effect can still be felt today. Currently, we are faced with finding innovative ways to meet the needs of individuals in the communities that we serve that don't have equitable opportunities to access our services.


We are also facing challenges due to talent shortages. There are simply not enough people pursuing health and sciences degrees and certifications, which ultimately impacts the quality of service that we can provide to our patients.


What are some ways that you are addressing talent shortage issues?


We experienced very high attrition during the pandemic, particularly with employees in entry-level positions in our Environmental Services, Transport, and Food and Nutrition units. To increase retention and provide the necessary support to staff in these roles, we launched the Success Coaching Program.

We are trying to approach our hiring needs through multiple pathways, because a one-size-fits-all solution will not work. In healthcare and every other industry, we can no longer sit back, post a job and wait for people to apply. Instead, we must think about how we can encourage and inspire people to want to work for us.

After surveying our team, we learned that more often than not, personal challenges were impacting their employment decisions. The Success Coaching Program systematically provides wraparound support to staff, in the form of grocery gift cards, cafeteria vouchers, emergency child care resources, and a variety of additional supports. This program is in place to ensure team members are able to continue employment even through difficult personal challenges. This program has been quite a success, and we’ve seen a 80% retention rate among participants.


Can you provide an example of how someone with no experience can build a career at Advocate?


One way is by participating in one of our apprenticeship programs. These programs offer participants the opportunity to earn a competitive wage while learning a new craft and earning a credential. Apprentices are hired with no experience in their chosen fields but are provided with a support system to help ensure their success. Consistently, across all of our apprenticeship programs, we’ve observed that 80 to 85 percent of the apprentices that complete our program, continue to work at Advocate Health. We offer apprenticeships in: facilities maintenance, culinary, and IT.



What are examples of entry level jobs that do not require a four-year degree?


We do not require any post secondary education for many of our support services roles. In some cases, a high school diploma is also optional. These positions, primarily in Food, Nutrition, Environmental Services, and Transportation require candidates to be able to learn quickly and navigate a dynamic environment.


Do these positions have a career path associated with them - i.e., a way to be promoted to a position with greater responsibility and compensation?


As an organization, career mobility is extremely important to us. The more opportunities we can provide for our teammates, the more likely they are to stay with us and value their experience.


For many positions, there are clear levels of progression that an employee may move along. Our Environmental Services team, for example, has created a robust career management program that demonstrates how teammates can progress along a career path, moving from entry-level roles up to management positions within Environmental Services. Alternatively, if someone is interested in moving to a clinical team or another area of interest, we're helping them build competencies to be successful in those ways as well.


Through our Navigate program, frontline teammates are supported by professional development courses that help them to enhance their competencies in areas that will allow them to move into positions with greater responsibility. The aim of the program is to provide a space for career exploration and to align team members with upskilling opportunities.


What are various ways you source entry-level talent?


We have a sourcing team that works closely with various community-based organizations in Illinois and Wisconsin, providing a pipeline for individuals from outside of our organization to address some of our hiring needs. Some of our most active partners include Cara Collective, Employ Milwaukee, and Phalanx Family Services.

We also have relationships with several local colleges and universities and provide internship opportunities for students. We maintain ongoing relationships with previous interns and look to provide opportunities after graduating for permanent employment.

We also need to invest in people beyond just wages and benefits. Employees expect to be able to bring their whole selves to work and that their employer will value them beyond the work that they do for the organization.

Additionally, we have workforce development programs that provide summer opportunities for high school students. We partner with One Summer Chicago in Illinois, and Employ Milwaukee in Wisconsin, to offer career exploration, volunteer, and work-based learning opportunities to students. This program offers students a firsthand experience of working in a health system.


Tell me about some of the advantages of working with workforce development partners for recruitment.


Our partnerships with community-based organizations provide us with an in-depth line of sight into the community. Our partners have strong programs where they complete the candidate vetting process, providing an additional layer of trust between us and candidates. Because of our confidence in our partners, we know that when participants complete their training programs, they have the skills that we are looking for.


Cara Collective has been a particularly helpful partner with our Returning Citizens Program, which provides opportunities for individuals that have been justice-involved to find careers in healthcare, which can traditionally be very difficult to do.


Can you give us an example of an innovative approach that you’ve taken to recruitment?


We are trying to approach our hiring needs through multiple pathways, because a one-size-fits-all solution will not work. In healthcare and every other industry, we can no longer sit back, post a job and wait for people to apply. Instead, we must think about how we can encourage and inspire people to want to work for us.


We recently completed a grant with JP Morgan Chase and participated in the Healthcare Forward program along with Sinai Chicago and the University of Chicago Medicine. The program specifically focused on recruiting people from Chicago’s South and West Sides into healthcare careers. Applicants were provided free work readiness training that guaranteed an interview with one of the three health systems.


This innovative initiative brought together three separate health systems. Rather than compete for talent, we collaborated to find the best opportunities for applicants from our service community. We were even able to hire many individuals that had unsuccessfully applied for jobs at our systems before.


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


When it comes to wages and benefits, employers must truly evaluate whether they are providing family-sustaining wages. One step that we’ve taken to uplift impoverished communities was raising our minimum wage to $18 per hour.


We also need to invest in people beyond just wages and benefits. Employees expect to be able to bring their whole selves to work and that their employer will value them beyond the work that they do for the organization.


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