HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- "I love my job. I enjoy meeting every single person, every single day. It is such a blessing," Victoria Stephen said with a huge smile.
Stephen's joy is clear when she talks about her passion for her patients.
"Once I walked in the doors of MD Anderson - and it is a big deal, you know, it's a big deal - and I was just embraced," she said.
Indeed, it is a big deal. Stephen is a phlebotomist apprentice at an institution that was recently named number one in the nation for cancer care, according to U.S. News & World Report's 2023-24 "Best Hospitals" survey.
But bigger than that, she's a loving mother whose journey going back to school began with her son coming home from the military. He wanted to get into the medical field, so they took an X-Ray Tech course together.
"He didn't want to do it alone, so I did it with him, and I ended up loving it," Stephen said.
Stephen started working, but was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020.
"Right in the middle of COVID. So it was a lot. I took a break and the doctor that I was working for said, 'Hey, if you move on and you do MRI, you do CAT scans, you do all these things, you need to have the technique to administer the dye. You need to engage in the phlebotomy program. I think it's going to be beneficial for you going forward,'" she described. "So after my first surgery. I decided, 'OK. I'm going to get back out there, and I'm going to do some things.'"
That led her to Houston Community College's Gulf Coast Region Apprenticeship Hub.
"You're coming in, you have no experience. We connect you with an employer. You're getting the benefits. You're getting the salary as long as you're making the commitment to complete that credential," said Dr. Christina Robinson, executive director, work-based learning and industry partnerships, at HCC.
An apprenticeship is a combination of both in the classroom learning and on-the-job learning at the same time. It's often described with the phrase "earn while you learn."
Most apprenticeships last for one year, but their duration can be as long as five years, depending on the program. You'll also get a credential and work with a mentor.
You don't already have to be enrolled in a program or pursing a degree to be an apprentice.
"What we're going to do is we're going to go out and find a company that's looking for somebody in the IT world. And we're going to match you with that company. You're going to enroll in the program, the IT program right before you start on the company," said Robinson, giving an example of one of the industries.
Health care has the most in-demand positions, but apprenticeships are available of all kinds, including artificial intelligence, to the more well-known, traditional routes of plumbing and welding.
"I always say to our clients, 'If you can dream up the apprenticeship, we can create the apprenticeship,'" Robinson said.
The amount of money you make depends on the field, so health care, for example, usually pays more, but there's still a huge need for electricians and welders.
The hub also just launched a human resources generalist program.
"Most of the salaries are going to range between $18 to $25 an hour for entry. That's for your one year. But the great thing about this is, when you do an apprenticeship, you get a starting wage, a middle wage, and an exit wage," Robinson explained. "So you might come in at $18, but you're leaving at the end of the year at $22, or you might come in at $22 and end at $25."
Meanwhile, Stephen is keeping her smile bright for her patients. She's recovering from a mastectomy procedure she had in April, and knows what it's like to have to push through.
"So when they sit there and they come to me, and they talk to me, and you know the day is long or the smile is a little bit short, or the struggle is there, I get it. And I can bring them back to sunshine if you will," she said.
Stephen will complete her one-year apprenticeship next February.
But there's still plenty of room for more people.
Robinson says not only is there a talent shortage, there's a huge push to increase the amount of women in apprenticeships. In fact, she adds some of HCC's partners will pay for child care and gas cards to help people get back to the classroom and ultimately a career.
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