Client Story

Northern Light Mercy Hospital

Unlocking healthcare talent with language skills for refugee communities

The US is facing a healthcare crisis. The nation has an ageing population and a shortage of skilled workers to support a growing number of patients, which is putting pressure on healthcare services. Northern Light Mercy Hospital in the city of Portland, Maine has developed a unique approach to tackle the shortage with a pioneering workforce development programme – +MPower – that centres around language development and is designed to alleviate the skills shortage while empowering people from marginalised refugee communities. The programme’s funder, the John T. Gorman Foundation, asked us to partner with Mercy Hospital, the healthcare provider, to evaluate the programme and recommend improvements.

Chronic talent shortages plague the US healthcare system, but one forward-thinking hospital has developed a unique programme to address this issue while empowering marginalised refugee communities.

Recognising the untapped potential and diverse skills of its large central African refugee population, the Northern Light Hospital in Portland, Maine has devised a comprehensive workforce development programme that includes a language acquisition component to help people learn English and fill workforce gaps in the healthcare system.

The approach in Portland is not just about resettling or settling refugees in the community but really an avenue for them to be a part of the community, utilise their transferable skills and also fill a workforce gap in their own state.”
Vice President Mission Integration, Northern Light Mercy Hospital

Upskilling untapped talent

For refugees that are highly educated and possess valuable skills, a language barrier can significantly limit employment opportunities. And despite the fact that they may have had high-wage, high-skilled jobs in their own country, they find their opportunities limited to low-wage, low-skilled jobs due to the lack of opportunity to learn a new language.

Many of the refugees in Portland are eager to join workforce development programmes, but most of these programmes require a level of English acquisition prior to joining. The challenge is that most programmes have months-long waiting lists, essentially creating a bottleneck for motivated and skilled workers.

Recognising the wide range of skills among its refugee staff, Mercy Hospital launched its workforce development programme with language acquisition in an effort to unlock this untapped talent.

Unlike traditional language classes, the course is delivered by community partners and takes place within Mercy Hospital itself, so participants do not have to choose between work and acquiring the skills they need to advance in their careers. Learning a language while maintaining their jobs opens doors to higher-paying positions that better align with their qualifications.

Furthermore, the programme provides essential digital literacy skills that carry into their personal lives. Being able to access healthcare, education, and other essential services online further supports personal and community growth and wellness.

By uplifting the voices of their participants, we are supporting them in their dual goal to both close the talent gap within their healthcare organisation and support the economic upward mobility of the most marginalised communities.”
Business transformation expert, PA

Optimising the programme using first-hand feedback

To ensure the programme was as effective as possible, we partnered with Mercy Hospital to understand the programme's impact and identify opportunities to improve on it. Given the uniqueness of Mercy’s +Mpower programme to both fill staffing gaps in a healthcare organisation and uplift marginalised communities, we developed an evaluation framework focused on mission-driven programmes.

The framework evaluated the programme based on a range of components as Claudia Gaitan, PA business transformation expert explained, “We looked at how the programme measured up to established practices in the field. What metrics could be used to determine success? And were these the correct ones? What made this programme different than all the rest?”

Using this framework and augmenting it with research, focus groups, and interviews with programme participants, staff, and community partners, we identified significant insights for expanding and measuring programme impact. “It became clear that the programme was achieving more than it was measuring and still had opportunities for growth,” explained Gaitan. She continued, “that meant expanding relationships with additional immigrant-serving organisations and establishing a unified data collection strategy that includes participant feedback on the programme.”

In terms of metrics, together we agreed the need to measure short-term success aligned to social emotional well-being through increased confidence, a better network of support, and a broader vocabulary. Further down the line, success can be measured by the number of entry-level employees who increased their hourly wage.

Hearing directly from the participants was the best part of this project. We conducted two focus groups over Zoom, one in English for more advanced participants, and one with a French speaking interpreter to capture participants’ thoughts and voices. Everyone emphasised how grateful they were for this opportunity. One participant recounted working at a factory through the night and then heading to English class afterwards. She said it was almost impossible to be successful with that set up. But not with Mercy. Mercy provides her the opportunity to learn English while working, and once her English improves, she’ll be able to begin training for a CNA certification (Certified Nursing Assistant). With her certification, she’ll be able to access a job that is higher-skilled and higher-paid.”
Business transformation expert, PA

A programme without trade-offs

Where the +Mpower programme truly stands out as unique compared to others in the industry, is that there is no trade-off between wages and learning. Other programmes force users to choose between taking English classes after work and giving up time with their family or working fewer hours to take courses during their day, impacting their economic stability. +Mpower removes that choice by providing on-site, paid learning opportunities.

Learning a language is a long-term commitment and, as the programme evolves, the true impact will become apparent. By breaking down barriers and empowering marginalised communities, Mercy Hospital is addressing the talent gap in the healthcare system while promoting economic mobility.

Other healthcare organisations in the US are seeking innovative solutions to talent shortages and inclusion of marginalised populations and may look to Mercy Hospital for inspiration.

Mercy Health identified a problem and jumped in with a plan. They found ways to support their entry level employees who are new to this country, from beginning to end, bringing all the pieces in-house rather than directing people all over town to piece it together.”
President and CEO, John T. Gorman Foundation

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.