Agape Senior soon could be training Chinese students

01/18/2014 11:00 PM

01/18/2014 11:01 PM

The leaders of Agape Senior, an elder care provider based in the Midlands, travelled recently to China to talk about their innovative apprenticeship program.

Could that mean the fast-growing local company wants to get a foothold in a soon-to-explode Chinese market for elder care? Scott Middleton, Agape’s founder and CEO, says that’s not the long-term goal.

But he is intrigued by the idea of China sending its young elder care executives-to-be to South Carolina to train alongside locals in the Agape program.

“They could roll right into the apprenticeship program, and we could put them working in one of our campuses so they could see how they could go back and manage a facility,” Middleton said. “I could see in a few years having 20 Chinese working as interns in Agape.”

That’s the kind of forward thinking that has seen Agape Senior expand from one assisted living facility in West Columbia in 1999 to 10 assisted living centers, three skilled nursing facilities, one inpatient hospice unit and 23 home-based hospice offices throughout the state. The senior living group also is undertaking an innovative $8 million project to bring its headquarters – along with a senior health clinic, fitness center, vegan café, pharmacy and conference center – to three buildings on Columbia’s rejuvenated Main Street.

Agape was among the first assisted living companies in the state to hire health care professionals specifically to treat its residents, and it now employs 38 physicians or nurse practitioners. “What we found is the only way for us to get the care that our patients needed and to be seen as often as they needed was to hire our own physicians,” Middleton said.

Agape also started an apprenticeship program, which has since grown to five different programs. Shortly after employees are hired, they are encouraged to take advantage of the programs, which provide training outside of work hours.

“We hire them with the hope they have potential,” Middleton said.

As employees complete the apprenticeship training, which usually requires a couple hours per week, they get raises and are eligible for job advancement.

In the 18-month certified nursing assistant program, for instance, employees learn about the stages of death and dying or the specifics of caring for dementia patients or the plusses and minuses of various medications. In the management apprenticeship program, the new employees learn the basics of being good managers, how to read profit-loss statements and what to not do in the interview process.

Agape originally hired instructors from local technical colleges to teach the sessions, but they now use their own employees to teach the classes. The company gets a $1,000-per-year federal tax credit for every employee in the program. But Middleton noted that to qualify for tax credits the company must provide raises that add up to more than $1,000 for most jobs.

Still, Agape comes out ahead because it has better trained employees, and they tend to stick around. In a job that typically has rapid turnover, the certified nurse associates in the Apage program had a 93 percent retention rate in the first year.

Jimmie Williamson, Agape’s chief human capital officer, gave a presentation on the apprenticeship program at the International Association of Homes and Services for the Ageing’s international conference in Shanghai, China, in November. With many young people moving from rural areas and smaller cities to the largest cities, China is ripe for elder care facilities for their parents.

While the conference was held in China in part because of that burgeoning need, Williamson’s presentation was aimed at conference attendees from throughout the world.

“What we found is that there were a lot of countries represented, and they were very lacking around the world in how they educate their staff,” Middleton said. “One Chinese consultant said they had built a facility but had nobody to operate it because they don’t have the expertise there.”

Middleton encouraged him to recruit Chinese managers for those facilities and send them to Agape for training as interns. While there is the possibility to profit from that sort of relationship, that’s about as far as Middleton wants to delve into the Chinese elder care market.

“I don’t have any desire to go to China to build facilities,” Middleton said. “People have asked us about expanding outside of South Carolina, and I just see so much potential in the state of South Carolina. That was my goal when I got into the business, to see things change in South Carolina.”

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