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Pathfinders: Introducing Penn Medicine’s Pathways Emerging Careers Program

Dwaine B. Duckett
Dwaine B. Duckett

Dwaine B. Duckett, senior vice president of Human Resources for the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), sees one of Penn Medicine’s key roles in the Philadelphia region as opening doors to opportunity — ensuring that everyone who wants a job will be able to envision and have a chance at a potential role within the health system.

But those doors haven’t always been easy to get a foot in for all young people growing up in Philadelphia. As Duckett puts it, historically, they “have a hard time accessing the institution.” That difficulty becomes a barrier to making the institution’s workforce better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the people of the city it serves.

Efforts at UPHS are aimed at changing that, through an HR partnership with Susan C. Taylor, MD, a physician and vice chair of diversity, equity and inclusion in Dermatology at the Perelman School of Medicine; and Jennifer TerMaat, director of Talent Management and Placement and Mariel Harden, a UPHS administrative fellow.

The result is the Pathways Emerging Careers Program, which invites Philadelphia high school graduates to start a career with Penn Medicine, and sets them up for success with extra coaching, training, and mentoring.

Its aim is to recruit promising young people, get them started off on a good note in the organization, and help them develop and pursue career goals, with all of the support that Penn Medicine provides, which includes tuition benefits for bachelor’s and advanced degrees while they are employed with the organization. Duckett, who grew up in the city and graduated from Martin Luther King Jr. High School, muses about the opportunity to join the workforce and get a degree with financial support as well as prospects for higher education: “If I was graduating from high school today and I was told that I could get a job, that would have tuition reimbursement attached to a good minimum wage, 15 bucks an hour, I would have never taken off and gone to college in Boston. I would have never left Philadelphia.”

Pathways Emerging Careers is just one of several Penn Medicine initiatives aimed to address inequities in access to career and educational activities. For instance, during the construction of the Pavilion, PennAssist helped graduates of city career and technical high schools learn the building trades. A previous project called the Pipeline Program gave students both work experience and college credits before they graduated high school. And Pennsylvania Hospital is currently hosting its own version of the Pathways program, offering new high school graduates a four-month internship during which they rotate through various departments and eventually take a job in the area where they match best. Outside of Philadelphia, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health recently hosted Career Exploration days for high school students in the Lancaster area.

Students of the Pathways Emerging Careers Program holding certificates
Recent graduates celebrate their completion of the Penn Medicine Pathways Emerging Careers Program.

The Pathways Emerging Careers program involves an application process and, as TerMaat puts it, a “reverse career fair,” where hiring managers of different departments (such as Security, Perioperative Services, Medical Records, Food Services, Environmental Services, and more) meet with high school students to “pitch” opportunities to them. Interested students then go through an interview process that looks for qualities like curiosity, a positive outlook, and a can-do attitude. Says TerMaat, “A lot of what we heard from the managers was, if you have the attitude that you're going to show up every day to work with a smile on your face, so much of the rest of it can be trained.”

New high school graduates applied for the inaugural class of the Pathways Emerging Careers program in June 2022 and were selected and hired through July and August 2022. The 10 students chosen for the program joined Penn Medicine in entry-level positions like patient services associates, transport associates, and materials management associates.

In addition to the standard Penn Medicine onboarding and orientation that all employees throughout the organization complete, and job-specific training, the Pathways participants also received two weeks of job-readiness training through a partnership with JEVS (Jewish Employment and Vocational Services) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center. This extra level of training included topics such as professionalism in the workplace, diversity in large organizations, and understanding health insurance for beginners. In addition, each participant was paired with a mentor for the first six months of their employment to serve as a sounding board, provide feedback, and serve as a role model for what a career at Penn Medicine could entail.

The Pathways Emerging Career Program’s first group of graduates are settled nicely into their roles and doing well. “Everyone has been very positive about the program participants,” according to Harden, who stays in touch with the hiring managers. “They appreciated and agreed that this age group benefited from those extra classes that we had them do.”

Duckett noted that the program represents more than a job to these young people; it is a meaningful opportunity to shape their futures. “Some of the initial accounts I’ve heard from people that have participated, is that it has been life changing,” remarks Duckett. “The positive impact for Penn Medicine, the community, and each of these young people can be off the charts. We’ll always need talent and people beginning their careers need opportunity.”

For example, Amber Marie DeLoatch joined the organization as a clinical support representative at Penn Medicine Urgent Care. She sees it as the first step in achieving her childhood dream of becoming a nurse. “My role is perfect for what I’m looking to be, she says. “It’s very hands-on and a huge learning experience.” DeLoatch especially likes the “super-relatable” mentor who’s helping her along the way.

Pennsylvania Hospital transport associate Taeyana White says Pathways helped her learn about the different departments she encounters in her daily work transporting patients, and taught her how to present herself professionally, to both patients and staff. “My mentor is so supportive and so understanding, and she pushes me to do more with my life and not settle for what’s just in front of me,” White says.

That feeling is mutual, says Pathways mentor Alyssa Diaz, operations supervisor at the Access Center. “The mentees have shown incredible growth and have really listened to the advice given by all the mentors,” she says. “I believe we are contributing to building strong model employees who will hopefully have robust careers with Penn and feel completely supported from the beginning.”

With this debut of the program a success, Duckett and his colleagues are already preparing for the next go-round, hoping to expand its reach throughout the region and to offer even more opportunities across the entire health system. “We need to make sure that all of us in leadership keep the momentum going to continue to make connections with these young people. It's all about maintaining momentum and making this a part of the fabric of Penn Medicine.”

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