As competition for talent intensifies, health systems must double down on career mobility

The national labor shortage continues to roil nearly every business and industry across the country. The harm it’s inflicting on health systems is especially alarming, as it renders patient populations vulnerable during the current, and possibly the next, public health crisis. 

For many of us, the headlines are familiar: burnout, early retirement, and the rise of traveling nurses render hospitals across the country with a smaller pool of full-time employees. This pool will continue to shrink as many large healthcare systems lose even more talent to other, more unexpected sources, like retail, eCommerce, and tech companies.

In turn, healthcare organizations must finally face a reckoning that has been looming for decades: re-envision their strategy around talent attraction, retention, and mobility or lose the war for talent.

The tightening labor market for entry-level talent

Starting as early as high school, workers are being attracted and recruited to other industries, posing a huge challenge to health systems that are trying to hire for entry-level clinical roles. And while health systems have a wider range of roles that lead to more corporate opportunities and family-sustaining wages, they are facing a tighter labor market because short-term pay at retailers and, say, Amazon distribution centers, are comparable if not higher. 

This heightened competition for talent leaves many departments with entry-level roles, including patient transporters and environmental services technicians, short staffed. However, these positions often serve as gateway roles to lifelong, upwardly mobile careers in healthcare, where the median annual wage for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations was $75,000 in 2021 compared to the US overall average of $46,000.

Retailers’ competition for talent in the healthcare space

Walgreens, Amazon, and other retailers are taking great measures to invest in their healthcare offerings and are aligning their talent philosophies to expand their eCommerce health strategies. In July 2020, Walgreens announced it will offer full-service doctor offices in 500-700 stores over the next five years. Later that November, Amazon launched Amazon Pharmacy for prescription medications. These trends in retail health exemplify the rapid pace at which retailers are impacting the healthcare space.

Over the next six to seven years, the US market for retail health clinics is expected to grow 10.8% annually as these retail and eCommerce behemoths invest in standing up retail health services. With the talent market already tight, we expect that there will be an ever-increasing demand for healthcare-adjacent opportunities for frontline workers outside of the traditional hospital setting. 

Increasing competition for tech talent

In addition to competing for talent across health and health-adjacent job roles, hospitals are competing for tech talent more broadly. Industry-agnostic tech roles include cybersecurity, IT, and data analytics, and are hard to fill in any industry, including hospital systems.

As the number of malicious malware and phishing attacks against hospitals increases, cybersecurity is an essential field that will be needed to protect the sensitive information that hospitals store. For example, 45 million individuals were affected by cybersecurity breaches this past year, triple the number in 2018 (see additional footnote below). The labor crunch will exacerbate the problem even more. In March, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director cited there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2025 if things remain unchanged. With only about one million cybersecurity professionals today, there isn’t a sufficient amount of talent to secure the data needs of many companies across the country, including hospitals.

What hospitals and healthcare systems can do to compete

Besides seeking fair pay for today, employees want a sense of purpose and clear pathways for tomorrow. To obtain the talent for hard-to-fill roles, hospitals and other healthcare providers must adopt more sophisticated skilling and mobility strategies. These strategies must be geared towards entry-level talent and emphasize the industry’s values-based mission, which attracts healthcare employees in the first place

Employees also need pathways for growth. Last year, 63% of American workers left their jobs, in part because there was no opportunity for advancement. People who fall into the Millennial and Gen Z demographics, in particular, value professional development and career growth, with 87% of millennials saying that “professional or career growth and development opportunities” are important to them in their job. At the same time, employers typically underestimate the degree to which their workers value opportunities for advancement and their willingness to leave in search of better advancement opportunities. 

Fortunately, health systems have a long history of providing workforce development and education programs. Some healthcare systems even have mobility teams dedicated to mapping out the most in-demand pathways and communicating them internally. But now is the time to expand such offerings, and allow entry-level talent to progress along both clinical and non-clinical paths. 

Hospitals and health systems are uniquely positioned to create a culture of opportunity because of the vast pathways offered, spread out across clinical, business, and technology departments. By leveraging education benefits, these organizations can unlock career mobility at scale, since many roles require completion of specific educational programs that can progress a candidate quickly to their next role or pay band (e.g., RN to BSN programs for registered nurses to earn their bachelor’s). 

Bon Secours Mercy Health, in partnership with Guild, is doing just that. While being employed as a certified nursing assistant at the health organization for several years, Adrienne Karam experienced many personal challenges including divorce, adopting her young niece, and having a child in the NICU. 

When BSHM offered an internal mobility process starting with a certification in phlebotomy, Karam was one of the first two team members to enroll and complete the program. In April 2022, she started a new role as a Lab Assistant Phlebotomist and was recently accepted into a medical assistant certificate program. Ultimately, she hopes to continue earning credentials to become a registered nurse. 

“I see that finish line there and I know it’s coming, I just got to get there…” said Karam. “I [will] wake up one day and have that RN behind my name and say, ‘I did it. That was my dream and I did it.’”

When health systems invest in employee mobility they not only improve talent attraction and retention, they also create talent pipelines that close skills gaps and prepare their workforce for future business challenges. Building talent internally, rather than buying (or leasing) it on the talent market, enables companies to develop a more enduring and engaged workforce from the very community they serve. 

Despite the myriad of challenges the industry faces for talent, its mission to help those who are most vulnerable will draw competent workers to the field. Many eager employees want a career in serving patients because of their strong sense of care-taking, healing, and supporting people. Others move into administrative roles like HR, IT, finance, and business management to improve the patient experience and enhance health outcomes for all. 

Unfortunately, many employees across both clinical and non-clinical roles are pulled away for reasons beyond their control. However, health systems can help resolve some of these issues. When healthcare institutions provide skilling and mobility opportunities through tuition-free or low-cost education programs, it makes it easier for prospective and internal employees who previously did not have access to such opportunities to continue their journey in the healthcare industry. These employees are compelled by the mission, but with the prospect of career growth and economic mobility, are given a reason to stay.

A Guide to Getting Started with Career Mobility in Healthcare

Note: Critical Insight’s full 2021 H2 Healthcare Data Breach Report can be downloaded here. The statistic can be found on page 3.



Written by Karen Alpuche and Hillary Bernhardt



Senior Consultant, Solution Design and Engagement Manager, Solution Design