A Wisconsin senior living operator is piloting a program it hopes other providers ultimately will be able to replicate to address workforce shortages across the country.

Ovation Communities is testing the Geriatric Career Development program at two of its three communities: Ovation Chai Point, an independent and assisted living community in Milwaukee, and Ovation Jewish Home, a community providing memory care, skilled nursing, respite, rehabilitation and hospice services in Milwaukee.

With support from LeadingAge and LeadingAge Wisconsin, the program not only potentially will help senior living operators — Wisconsin has average caregiver vacancy rates of 19%, according to a recent survey — but it also may help local high school students at risk of not graduating.

Approximately 15 students hailing from four different high schools will begin the GCD program in October, spending eight to 10 after-school hours per week with Ovation. Among the students will be four new sophomores who recently completed the GCD’s Summer Ambassador Program and will serve as mentors to new students in future years.

“These at-risk students were chosen to provide them with opportunities and support that they might not receive otherwise,” Ovation Communities Chief Operating Officer Michelle Putz told McKnight’s Senior Living. “We have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on their lives that will allow them to inspire other students. Additionally, we are able to expand our community outreach to give back to the community that we operate in.”

All program participants were required to submit applications, obtain one referral from a teacher and participate in an interview process, Putz said. The program lasts three years, through students’ senior year in high school.

“The first year — sophomore year — is focused around the foundations of senior care, personal/professional development and academic support,” she said. “The second year — junior — focuses more on intergenerational outreach, labor/skills development, college preparation (ACT/SAT prep) and certified nursing assistant education. In the third year — senior — more emphasis is placed on college preparation (applications), obtaining internships and certificates within the healthcare field. During each year, mentors and tutors are available for school work and additional preparatory needs.”

To continue in the program, “students must maintain good attendance both within the program and at school, adhere to the program and its mission, maintain good grades and positively interact with the residents,” Putz said.

For those old enough to work, job opportunities will be available through Ovation Communities and other senior living and long-term care providers in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is the first state to test the program outside of New York, where it launched at The New Jewish Home and saw promising results, according to Ovation. All participating students in that program planned to attend college.

Ovation anticipates that the program will spread to additional operators.

“The GCD program was started in conjunction with LeadingAge Wisconsin, and it was created to be replicable,” Putz said. “We expect that other nonprofit facilities will be following suit within the next year or two.”