STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success PodcastIn the introductory season of the STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success podcast, ACU’s Michelle Fernández Gabilondo gives you a glimpse into the integral role Chief Workforce Officers (CWO) play in advancing health center workforce success. In this episode Michelle interviews Ashley Colwell, Vice President of Clinical Services and Workforce Development at the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, about the vital role PCAs play in strengthening the workforce efforts of health centers including initiatives that support CWOs.

Listen to other podcasts in this series.

Full Transcript: PCAs and Health Center Workforce Initiatives

Introduction: Welcome to STAR² Center Chats with Workforce Leaders, which features the voices of health center experts from around the nation. We know this invaluable information will help in your journey to advance the workforce initiatives of your organization.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Welcome everybody today. My name is Michelle Fernández. I am the senior training specialist here at the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved. In today’s CWO podcasts, we’re going to be talking with Ashley Colwell. She’s the vice president of clinical services and workforce development at the Illinois Primary Care Association. We’re very excited to have her here today to share her invaluable information and expertise regarding workforce. So welcome, Ashley.

Ashley Colwell: Welcome. Thank you for having me.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: We’re very excited. So let me just start off with my first question. You know, health centers were started by communities for communities. So the aim is to build a workforce that is reflective of those communities in which they serve. So could you just tell me a little bit about your PCA, the work you do with health centers, their workforce and really how it embodies that health center history?

Ashley Colwell: Sure. So the Illinois Primary Healthcare Association has served the community health centers here in Illinois since 1982. And really our mission is around leveraging our expertise to educate, empower and advocate for the Illinois community health centers, really with the goal that every person and community across the state can access a cutting edge, compassionate care that they need to thrive. Another pillar of ours is to position health centers as the highest standard of care and really provide them with the tools that they need for their patients. And so with that mission, we found that we need to help our health centers plan, prepare and retain their workforce. So because of that, we started providing direct recruitment services and workforce and training and technical assistance about 21 years ago. So for the last 21 years, we have done direct recruitment of clinicians and essentially our goal is to help our health centers build their clinician vacancies. So our Illinois community health centers serve 1.4 million patients out of just under 400 locations.

Ashley Colwell:

We have a huge patient base, a lot of health center sites. And really we find that health centers really can struggle in their recruitment whether they’re urban, whether they’re rural. So our goal is to try to help ease some of that burden of the recruitment process and help them. So we do direct recruitment. We also do a lot of training around workforce topics such as recruitment planning, recruitment best practices, visa waivers, competitive compensation, diversity, equity and inclusion, burnout prevention and employee wellness. And so really our goal is to give them the training and bring those subject matter experts to the health centers so that they can take that information back and really try to have an impact on their center. We also at our PCA do a lot of work with health professions training. And so that again is really one of our focus areas.

Ashley Colwell: So as a PCA, it’s important for us to be connected to those health professions training programs. So we’ve established a lot of relationships that really help us build a pipeline of providers for the health centers. It wasn’t uncommon when I joined to meet a clinician, a doctor especially who was done with residency, who had never heard of an FQHC. And now it is so rare for us to run across someone who doesn’t know what an FQHC is. So I think that that is a big testament to our kind of our shift and focus on really meeting them where they’re at in school and then giving a lot of that education before they make their career decisions. So that really for our PCA was a huge turning point I think, in our changing our focus to meeting and reaching out to the students early in their careers.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Right. That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing all of that. And it’s such a robust number of services that you offered to really look at workforce from all angles. And that is so important because workforce isn’t just one thing, it encompasses so many different things. So thank you for sharing that. And you had kind of very quickly mentioned when you started at the PCA. So that’s really going to be my next question. Sort of take it a little bit back solely from the workforce conversation. We just want to know what was your professional journey and how did you get to your current role and how long have you been there?

Ashley Colwell: Sure. So I joined IPHCA just over 14 years ago and I came on as a recruitment specialist, doing all of our direct recruitment, then kind of moved into a manager of workforce role and then an associate director role. And then finally most recently vice president of clinical services and workforce development. So in my new role, I am still involved with our direct recruitment service overseeing that, but really doing a lot of our workforce planning and then also overseeing quite a few of our clinical programs. So IPHCA has a really robust clinical services arm in addition to our workforce arm. So we do a lot of work with behavioral health, oral health, diabetes, hypertension, chronic disease. I oversee those programs as well. So it’s been exciting just because I think that all of those things and all those services at a health center have an impact on the workforce. I feel like it all really ties together. I was excited to take that journey away from only workforce and a more broad encompassing service of all of those things.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Exactly. Because like you said, it all works together. So that’s why we were very excited to interview you today because we want to talk about CWOs, but being able to get that perspective from the PCA. And then your expertise in workforce, we thought it would be really great for all of our listeners. So going into that as a workforce professional, why would you say that achieve workforce officer is such an important role for health centers? And I think you’ve hit on this a little bit of sort of laying down the foundation why workforce is so important, but as we talk about this role, what would you say to that?

Ashley Colwell: Yeah, I really believe the community health centers need to be involved, like I said, in training. But I also feel like they have to have somebody identified at their health center who knows how to make those connections and where to build those relationships. I feel like they need someone who is completely invested in the workforce development, beyond someone who’s tasked with posting jobs, scheduling interviews, maybe even just doing the hiring. But I feel like they need a staff person who is focused beyond just hiring and is focused on the culture of the organization, what is keeping their staff there, what’s making their staff leave. I think that having a staff member, if possible that can have their finger on the pulse that can really identify those areas of weakness and the areas for opportunity around workforce.

Ashley Colwell: I think is so critical. And we see higher than average turnover rates in the FQHC industry and I just feel like if the health center has the ability to have someone in a truly dedicated workforce role, I mean, that truly is ideal. I know there’s a lot of centers that manage without maybe having a chief workforce officer, but I really think that this is really the direction I think that the workforce is heading in, is really having someone dedicated to serving their workforce. We’ve seen lots of organizations shift and make diversity equity and inclusion priorities. And I think this is similar. We have a lot of health centers that are hiring diversity officers and really making that a priority. And I feel like this is very similar. So setting someone up to truly be in charge of overseeing the workforce development within an organization, I really just think is so important. And I hope that world health centers can take that on. I think it can really help a health center to have a dedicated person.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Right. No, absolutely. We definitely agree on that here at ACU and the STAR² Center. We say that workforce really is that fuel for health centers. And one of the thing you mentioned is really someone in this role, but in many ways the title is not necessarily as important as the work that they’re going to be doing there. We’ve talked with other health centers where they may not have a chief workforce officer, but someone really in an equivalent role. And one thing that has come up every health center is different. Some are small, some are larger, rural, urban. I’m sure you guys know that the Illinois PCA with having over 400 sites. It just varies completely.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: So as we kind of begin to wrap up the interview today, is there anything that you really want to say to health centers as to how can they really ensure and start working on developing someone in that CWO or equivalent role? And then just in general like large workforce topic focus of conversation, is there anything else that you want to say to health centers sort of what they need to be aware of as sort of things go into the future because there’s a lot of unknowns, obviously, always in the future.

Ashley Colwell: Sure. I think that really developing a staff person, obviously, there’s someone already at the health center that could step into an equivalent role to a chief workforce officer. That’s great. And I think that really examining your current workforce, doing engagement surveys, I feel like those are sort of first steps is figuring out what’s happening with your current workforce. And then I think just setting someone up that can really start planning and doing some of those projections, what are we going to be needing down the line? How’s the workforce changing and how do we adapt to it. And I think another thing that I would encourage health centers to do to prepare for the future is getting involved in that health professions training. We know that that is a priority from HRSA is for health centers to be training.

Ashley Colwell: And I just feel like that is such an important role for… Also a chief workforce officer to be involved with establishing those linkages. So that would definitely be one of my biggest words of advice to a health center is to really examine how are you training and really kind of cultivating future employees. Are you hosting rotations people for internships? Are you doing any of those things that can help train the workforce. But also it’s essentially on the job interview as you train these potential employees, you might come across someone that you think is fabulous and you want to hire. So I think that it just really opens the door to help your hiring. So I would definitely encourage all health centers to get involved.

Ashley Colwell: And if you’re already involved in workforce training, I would say examine how you can expand to that. I feel like there’s always a need to keep growing when it comes to workforce. I think that if you’re maybe working with residents or you’re training nurse practitioners, maybe think about how can you start to train behavioral health providers. How can you host dental students for a rotation? So I think that there’s always something on the horizon. And as the services at the community health centers continue to grow so rapidly, I think that having a staff member who can really think about how to adapt the workforce is just so critical.

Michelle Fernández Gabilondo: Wonderful, thank you so much for all of the advice you provided and you also hit on something very important again, that workforce is key. And also right now this is a very strong focus that HRSA has with health professionals training, but also workforce initiatives in general. So that’s something that we also really wanted to highlight for our health centers and the individuals who are going to be coming on to listen to this podcast on the STAR² Center. But again, thank you so much Ashley. As I mentioned today, we talked to Ashley Colwell, the vice president of clinical services and workforce development at the Illinois Primary Care Association. So thank you so much.

Ashley Colwell: Thank you for having me.

Closing: Thank you very much for joining us today. We hope today’s conversation provided you with great insight into the important role a chief workforce officer plays in the overall success of your health center. Check out all of our free workforce tools and resources found at