Free training plus a promise of jobs for some Camden students

Students, including Ashley Pena (center), 19, of Camden, attend an announcement that will provide Camden youth with free medical-coding education and employment at Cooper University Health Care in Camden.

When she graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden last year, Rosemary Irizarry’s future was uncertain. The tech-savvy teen, often an honor-roll student, couldn’t afford her dream school — Stockton University.

“I put money into my savings, then decided to take a break for a semester and find out what I wanted to do, because I felt pressure,” said Irizarry, 19, of East Camden.

But a year later, she has a promise of employment as a medical coder, thanks to a jobs program involving Camden County College, local nonprofits such as Hopeworks, and the county’s largest employer, Cooper University Health Care.

Launched in September with 13 students, the initiative allows high school graduates and GED-holders — some loaded with other jobs and coursework — to earn a 39-credit medical-coding certificate at their own pace. For most, the program will take 15 to 18 months to complete and include a mix of in-person and online courses.

Afterward, students are guaranteed a full-time medical-coding job with Cooper University Health Care starting at $13.64 an hour. Full benefits are offered 90 days into employment.

“The more they explained the program to me, the more I enjoyed it,” said Irizarry, a Camden County College student and chemistry and medical-coding double major. A month into the program, she said, she’s starting to make flashcards to help her memorize complicated medical terminology and their corresponding codes.

County and state officials, along with top hospital and college administrators, gathered in a 10th-floor Cooper University Hospital boardroom overlooking downtown Camden to praise what the program means for youths in a city with nearly 20 percent unemployment and a median household income of just $25,000.

The certificate costs $12,000 per participant, but that cost is covered by public and private funding and the program is free to students, who must be Camden residents.

Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez described the initiative as “educating with a purpose.”

“Many children in the city become disenfranchised … because they can’t see where that certificate, that education, is going to take them. These young individuals know where they’re going,” said Rodriguez, a former science teacher.

The freeholder called for more such partnerships. Companies lured to Camden through tax incentives have launched a number of jobs programs in the city.

Holtec International, which got $260 million in tax breaks, opened its headquarters on the city’s waterfront last month. The energy-equipment manufacturer has partnered with Camden County College to create a three-month welding program for unemployed residents that by now boasts more than two dozen alumni.

The car distributor Subaru, which expects to open its new Camden headquarters in 2018 and house at least 800 employees there, donated equipment to a local nonprofit, Respond Inc. The organization opened a repair shop in North Camden, where residents can be trained to become Subaru technicians.

“We need to do more of this type of sharing,” Rodriguez said. “I know we do a lot, but I think we need to do more.”

The latest initiative is also part of Camden’s strategy to transform the downtown area into an “eds and meds” corridor, which includes Rutgers-Camden and Virtua, and bring jobs to the city. A Rowan University report found that of the 30,000 jobs in Camden, 40 percent come from education and medical institutions. Last week, officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Joint Health Sciences Center at Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The new program offers tuition benefits to students looking to continue their education while also benefiting the hospital, which has a shortage of medical coders, said Cooper University Health Care CEO Adrienne Kirby.

The program, she said, is an opportunity for young people in Camden to have “a well-paying job with excellent benefits.”