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EP78 WorkforceRx Podcast Karilyn Van Oosten

Karilyn Van Oosten, VP of Strategic Business Development at Unitek Learning: Partnering with Employers for Onsite Training

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Karilyn Van Oosten, VP of Strategic Business Development at Unitek Learning: Partnering with Employers for Onsite Training


In the battle against declining enrollments and declining perceptions of value, higher education organizations need to be flexible and meet employers and students where they are, says today’s WorkforceRx guest Karilyn Van Oosten. Her company, Unitek Learning -- a provider of workforce solutions and career training programs for the healthcare industry -- is doing that literally by bringing its educational offerings on site to healthcare organizations in what it calls a “school in the box” model. “They're able to go ahead and provide the setting for the clinicals and the skills lab, and we're able to go ahead and provide the curriculum, approvals, faculty...all of the pieces that are necessary to be able to deliver the curriculum and have these individuals be practice ready the moment they graduate,” she tells Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan. As for providing value to students, Van Oosten says the key is understanding they want fast-paced educational experiences that allow them to move smoothly into the workforce. Meeting that need without sacrificing quality is the challenge. Don’t miss this compelling conversation in which Van Oosten also shares her insights on stackable credentials, ‘learn and earn’ programs, and other signs of flexibility in workforce training programs that are trying to deliver the healthcare providers we all need.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to Workforce RX with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development, and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.

Workforce shortages remain a top concern of healthcare system leaders throughout the US and, of course, a key topic for this podcast. Our focus today is on higher education and what’s happening and needs to happen so that it can provide solutions for both learners and employers in healthcare.

For that, I’m happy to welcome Karilyn Van Oosten, the vice president of Strategic Business Development at Unitek Learning, a provider of workforce solutions and career training programs for the healthcare industry. In this role, she’s responsible for external partnerships with employers, clinical organizations, associations, community groups, and other key stakeholders.

Karilyn is a seasoned leader and business growth expert with over twenty years of experience with private institutions in higher education, including for-profits and not-for-profits, and she is passionate about the career advancement of leaders and professionals alike.

Thanks very much for joining us today, Karilyn. We’re delighted to have you.

Karilyn Van Oosten: Thank you so much for having me. This is a wonderful experience to be able to join you today and be able to share some of our knowledge.

Van: Well, let’s begin this way. You’ve worked, Karilyn, for several colleges and educational institutions throughout your career, including your current role at Unitek Learning. What are some commonalities across institutions of higher ed, and what keeps you interested in this work?

Karilyn: Yes. Honestly, everything is very similar. The difference is really depending on the programs that we offer and then depending on the settings where we offer them, but the institutions always have the same fights. I think that the most common denominator that I see is the fact that students want to go through the program at a fast pace and be workforce ready immediately so that they can get jobs. So those two things, I think, are the biggest common things or threads that I see throughout the for-profit and non-for-profit institutions. However, the key is being able to be very deliberate and intentional in how you’re delivering the education model and be able to provide something that is at a fast pace, yet quality and affordable. That’s the key piece.

What keeps me interested in the work I do is education. For me, education is power. It has been the driver of my career ever since I started, and for over twenty years, I’ve seen how it can really impact people’s lives. It can change people’s lives. It can take them from working, for example, as a groundskeeper in an organization and take them all the way to being a nurse practitioner. Those types of changes are just amazing to watch and really rewarding, so that’s what keeps me interested in the work I do.

Van: And you champion a lot of innovation in higher education. I’d love for you to talk about an innovation that you’re doing right now at Unitek Learning.

Karilyn: Yes, we’re very excited. About three and a half years ago, actually, we decided to go ahead and branch out and listen to what our partners had to say. Many of them were coming to us with questions about how can I get workforce ramped up very quickly, and also, how can we go ahead and plan for the future?

If you remember, that is in the midst of COVID. It’s in the midst of burnout. It’s in the midst of all of these things that were happening in that particular point in time. And we kind of said, okay, let’s take a step back. Let’s digest everything that they’ve provided to us, all this feedback, and what are three things that we can focus on that can really help our partner institutions?

One was with retention. That’s the key piece. Not even recruiting, but more so retention. Bringing people into the mix and then having them stay is a key factor. And then being able to go ahead and project and not constantly be chasing your tail and finding out how can I go ahead and have five, ten, twenty more employees? What we came up with is a practice ready solution.

We have what we call a ‘school in the box.’ It’s just like it sounds. We basically take the school on the road and we meet these employers and healthcare institutions where they are. They’re able to go ahead and provide the setting for the clinicals and the skills lab, and we’re able to go ahead and provide all of the essentials — the curriculum, the approvals, the faculty — all of the pieces that are necessary to be able to deliver the curriculum and have these individuals be practice ready the moment that they graduate, and they integrate actually beforehand.

Because many times, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve seen individuals that have joined our program that have been working in different capacities at these hospitals and healthcare institutions and then they’re able to go ahead and progress and stay. I can’t tell you how many of them have said, you know what? I was going to go ahead and work at this other hospital, but I’m staying here because I see how this hospital is investing in me and I’m able to grow and build my career here with them.

Van: Can you give us examples of occupations that can go on the road in the school in a box format?

Karilyn:  Yes. We currently focus on the L-V-N/L-P-N program, which is a Licensed Vocational Nurse or Licensed Practical Nurse. We also have the CNA (Certified Nurse Assistant) program that we offer. We offer everything from the RN to BSN program. We can do that onsite. That’s fully online as well. And then we have our associate’s degree in nursing and bachelor’s degree in nursing. We even offer our master’s degree in nursing. That’s an interesting focus because part of the workforce solutions that we bring to the table is being able to offer opportunities for individuals that perhaps have already a bachelor’s degree, but they might be interested in teaching. We offer them the opportunity to get our master’s program and then they can teach for us onsite. Again, weaving that culture, weaving all of those nuances of those institutions into the curriculum that we offer onsite.

Van: Let me ask one more follow-up question. In a prior podcast, one of the guests talked about the tuition reimbursement and how that particular public university really was thoughtful about the pricing such that it’s within the federal tuition reimbursement amount of $5,250. Does your program tap into that type of tuition support or is it more of an out of pocket arrangement with the employer?

Karilyn: Yeah, that’s a great question. We do a combination of both. The way we look at it — whenever we have these cohorts onsite with the school in the box and this type of model — we see that as a three-way partnership. We have the student involved, so they have some financial responsibilities. The hospital institution is involved, and like you said, many of them, because of the tax brackets, they can go ahead and have $5,250 and that becomes a tax deferment, so that’s a great way of them being able to capitalize on that. And then our tuition is a special tuition price for partners. The students are able to go ahead and take advantage of that special tuition break that we offer to our partners. So, everyone involved really has the opportunity to be able to be invested in what we’re doing and being able to provide these workforce solutions onsite.

Van: Well, thank you for sharing that innovation on retention for healthcare employers. I’m sure that’s going to be of tremendous interest to those who are struggling with this issue. Karilyn, maybe we can move up a few thousand feet to look at today’s higher education leaders who have major challenges in navigating the daunting headwinds of really a constantly changing landscape. What does an effective leader need to know how to do, and how has that changed over the years in your observation?

Karilyn: In my observation, I think that the leadership has become more collaborative. I think in the past, we had our traditional models where everything was very siloed. Everyone was very focused. You had your admissions team, you had your resident advisors, everyone worked in their own area, and they weren’t looking at what one another was doing. I think right now — and this is something that I know Unitek has been really focused on — is really integrating all of these silos and coming together with holistic solutions that are student centric.

We’re really looking at the student as the epicenter of everything that’s happening, and then how do we interact and how can we go ahead and put everything together to make sure that the student has a good outcome from our curriculum? Because again, we’re trying to get them through at a fast pace and get them working as quickly as possible, but also being efficient and being professional. So, all of those pieces come together by having that.

Our student services team has been really focusing a lot of their resources on looking at all of those elements and integrating all of them and making sure that the students are ready. As you all know, the students have been changing and evolving, too. When I went back to school, I remember going into the library and doing the Dewey Decimal system. That doesn’t exist anymore right now. We have people that have information at their fingertips. Everything is moving at a very fast pace. So, how can we engage them and make sure that they’re learning and retaining all of the information that we’re imparting to them so that they can go ahead and turn around again and integrate into the workforce as quickly as possible?

It comes back to the leadership really being at that high level, looking at how all of those elements and pieces come together, how they can collaborate and work more efficiently together, because you can trust me that if you do that, you will see that you will have better retention rates and better outcomes in your students.

Van: You talk about being student-centric, needing to be digital first in terms of interactions with the students, and yet students are walking with their feet. There’s been a drop in higher education enrollment across the board. Of course, that was the result of the pandemic, but it worsened and in some places is recovering a little bit. We’re familiar with the drivers such as the shrinking youth population that normally feeds colleges. We’re familiar with the rising student loan situation. Are there any other lesser known factors at work here and what do colleges need to do about them?

Karilyn: That’s a great question. Healthcare is a little bit different because there’s always a need. I haven’t seen a surplus of healthcare providers  in my twenty-plus years. On the contrary, I’ve always heard of all of these shortages and a lot of need and demand.

In our case, one of the pieces that we’ve seen in this space has been the challenges of working with different entities with regards to seats, for example, which ties into the instructors. Are there going to be enough instructors that can go ahead and teach X amount of students? We’ve seen numbers of students being turned away from higher education institutions because there aren’t enough instructors. That’s one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize.

Then, there’s the red tape that’s involved in opening up, for example, a new institution or opening up more seats because you do have to have the evidence that we are able to go ahead and support the education for all these students. So, those are the type of things that I think a lot of people miss and they think, “Oh, we have all these seats open and it’s great and just come and teach” but not really. When you break it down to the employment and jobs that are necessary, that’s where that comes into play.

So it goes back to that cycle that we mentioned where we are very cognizant of that, and that’s why we enable our partners to go ahead and put their individuals through our programs so that we can not only have more providers in the workforce, but also have more educators in the educational workforce. It ties it all together because those are different nuances.

Another key piece too is the clinical space for these type of programs. You have to have that opportunity to be onsite and be able to learn hands-on on patients. I definitely want whoever’s taking care of me to have had experience in many, many clinical hours. So, those are the type of partnerships that we establish to help alleviate and help bridge that gap so that we can show that to the regulating bodies, the boards of nursing, the boards of education, and being able to show that we are able to go ahead and create these environments where we can teach these students and have them practice ready.

Van: Let’s talk about stacking credentials, which is an important growing trend. You shared, for example, your ‘school in the box’ has the nursing assistant, and then that stacks up to the L-V-N/L-P-N. So, that’s Licensed Vocational Nurse, Licensed Practical Nurse that stacks up to the RN, that stacks up to the BSN and this master’s level, so you’re living the system of stackable credentials. What best practices do you see are meeting both the needs of the learners and the employers specific to the healthcare sector when it comes to this approach of stacking credentials?

Karilyn: It’s interesting because there’s such a buzz about stacking credentials. In healthcare, we think well, that’s the nature of healthcare is stacking credentials and being able to go ahead and progress and be able to specialize. You do that by obtaining different certificates and obtaining different trainings and so it just comes as second nature to us. The key piece is really finding practical applications to real world experience so that way, those with stackable credentials are practice ready — individuals can go ahead and utilize them right away — and that they also relate to the different degree programs.

You mentioned a couple in which you can see the progression. So, for example, a Medical Assistant…they can go ahead and then jump into becoming an LPN or LVN, or they can then jump and become an associate’s degree prepared nurse. So, all of those things are definitely possible. The key is having institutions that are really focused on how can we go ahead and capitalize on that.

For example, with the Medical Assistant program, it’s making sure that it would be an easy transition for someone who has an MA credential from us or from another institution, to transition into those different degrees and it being seamless, and that also they can apply the work that they’ve already done into the new career path that they’re deciding to embark on. All of those elements are really key to having that seamless transition and being efficient because — going back to being student centric — it’s how can we go ahead and get these students practice ready at a fast pace, but with quality in mind?

Even if you’re looking at it from an educational perspective and learning perspective, what a better way of starting off as an MA or a CNA and then being able to apply that knowledge that you already have to the new career that you’re looking at. That’s only going to solidify the learnings that you’ve already had. So, it just kind of builds on it and, again, makes for a better practitioner at the end of the day.

Van: So Karilyn, this year, Futuro Health is underwriting 800 Futuro Health Scholars through the Medical Assistant education journey in order to get their Medical Assistant credential. Does that mean that there’s a path for them towards the nursing program with learning?

Karilyn: Absolutely. We build our programs that way, and I can’t tell you how many of our current students — who are not even with the Futuro Health program — that also decide to do that. We had one that we just recently interviewed, and that’s exactly what her pathway was. She started off in the MA program with us at Unitek College, and then she progressed and became an LPN, and then she graduated.

So, those are the type of things that we see these students being able to do, and that’s what we hope that everyone that goes through any of our programs is able to go ahead and build on and be able to expand on and really look at it as a career pathway. And I think that that’s really important. Going back to what I had mentioned about changing people’s lives, it’s very impactful to see how they might start off in the smaller role with the organization, but through the education, they can build on that and then become leaders in the organizations that they work in.

Van: Higher ed analysts estimate that 10% to 20% of four year colleges are at operational risk, and they expect a recent uptick in closures that will continue through next year. How do you think these institutions need to adapt in order to survive?

Karilyn: Yeah, that’s a great question and definitely something that’s top of mind with all institutions is really looking at that bottom line. Especially in the private sector, and even in the public sector, where funding is limited. It’s really being mindful of resources and capitalizing on resources that you already have. As I mentioned, our student services team is really looking at how all of those different positions that help support our students are woven together. One way of doing that is by centralizing, and that’s something that we’ve been able to do is really focus on centralizing our services. We’re not overlapping. We’re being very mindful of the resources, and we’re really focusing our resources on the areas that matter the most.

For us, one key piece is making sure that the students are ready to pass their examinations, whether it’s for the NCLEX examination or any others. It’s very important. We have a whole team of individuals and departments focused on that alone. They work very closely with student services so that we can go ahead and see what might be affecting these students. A lot of the students that go through our program are students that are careering or adult learners, so a lot of them have a lot of challenges that come into play. It is not your traditional student who’s just focused on going to school and graduating. They have all sorts of things that are pulling them in different directions. So, we have to be very cognizant and mindful of all of those things and seeing how we can best support them.

Van: Well, we have a lot of experience with adult learners, and they have particularly complicated lives. You and I talked offline about a training structure called ‘learn and earn’ models. I’d love for you to share your thoughts about those, especially as a way to achieve lower debt or no debt education.

Karilyn: Absolutely. So, the learn and earn model is becoming more and more prevalent, and it’s very exciting to see because it’s something that we had talked about a while back. There were some early adopters, but now it’s becoming more and more of a trend, particularly in some of those diploma programs or more of the technical programs. It’s a wonderful way of being able to recruit individuals into the healthcare field, or into any field for that matter.

It really brings those individuals into the fold and into the culture of the institutions right away, and then they are able to apply what they’re learning immediately. So again, going back to that whole learning model, they’re able to go ahead and solidify what they’re learning and not forget it.  How many courses did we take in college and we don’t even remember what they were and how they applied to our lives?

With the learn and earn models, you’re doing that right on site and many of the students apply a lot of their projects into what they’re doing in their current job. So, I think it’s a wonderful way of them being able to really solidify their education. And then also, like you mentioned, be able to go ahead and graduate with little or no debt whatsoever. In our nurse assistant training program, that’s what we do. The students graduate with no debt and it’s fantastic, and they have a job already. It goes back to that whole piece of being able to have these practice-ready individuals and have them in the workforce right away.

Van: Well, let’s wrap up today’s podcast, Karilyn, and give you the opportunity to share what excites you about the future of learning and its intersection with the future of care.

Karilyn: I think we’re in a really pivotal time right now. We are coming out of the pandemic. I think we’re still seeing some elements of burnout with our practitioners. However, I’m seeing a renewed enthusiasm in individuals going into the healthcare profession. They’re coming in with a new lens, they’re coming in with new perspectives, and they’re really embracing the whole idea of being able to take care of their patients because for healthcare, it’s not a profession. I think it’s a calling.

I think one of the key things that our team does is identify those individuals who are coming into the program not just because they want to come in and then just check a box and move on, but those who are coming in because they have a calling, and that’s how they retain, and that’s how they progress, and that’s how they grow. So, I think the future of healthcare can be very exciting.

Another element that we’re integrating into our curriculum is AI and virtual reality. Again…kind of meeting those students where they are. That’s something that’s second nature, especially for the younger generation. I mean, they do that in their sleep. So for us to be able to go ahead and capitalize on that and help them with a learning model using things that they already are used to, that they already know and they’re comfortable with…I think it can be very exciting.

Van: Well, we are so delighted to have hosted you on this podcast, Karilyn. Thank you very much for joining us.

Karilyn: Thank you.

Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future focused workforce in America.