Workforce consultant Tiffany Hodge talks with Sandra Geter, a graduate of the School at Work program. Geter now attends UMUC while working in the stroke unit at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

In recent years, MedStar Montgomery Medical Center noticed that some of its workers, particularly those in housekeeping or food services jobs, were facing a vexing problem.

“We were acutely aware that many of our front-line employees were absolutely stuck in positions that they could not move out of,” said Kate Davis, the Olney-based hospital’s director of learning and organizational development.

For some, English was a second language, and improved speaking and comprehension skills would be required for advancement. Others needed literacy classes or additional training to be eligible for a more highly-skilled job.

The hospital concluded that investing in training and education for top-performing entry-level staffers could provide a pipeline of the skilled employees it would need in the future. It could also be a way to reward and retain hard workers.

That mission tracked closely with the workforce development efforts of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, a District-based charitable giving network.

Janice Byfield works in the clinical laboratory at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

“One industry that we knew was really a primary focus for us was health care, because it’s a huge growing industry in the region,” said Sarah Oldmixon, the director of workforce initiatives at the foundation.

It was these complementary goals that led the hospital and the foundation to join forces for the Career Navigators program. The Community Foundation provided a grant of $25,000 to MedStar Montgomery to fund training and learning measures. In exchange, the hospital committed $50,000 that helps pay for tuition and covers the cost of the time off that workers need to complete their studies.

The program began last year, and because of its success, a second round of grants was issued in September.

Three other local hospitals — Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and Providence Hospital in the District — received similar grants from the foundation.

“It really allows us to align the resources we have with the business needs of the hospitals themselves,” Oldmixon said.

MedStar Montgomery began offering English as a second language classes in 2007, but the new grant allowed its workforce development program to grow. At first, it was used to fund a new offering called “School At Work,” which prepares workers for community college classes, mostly those that lead to medical services jobs.

While the ESL and literacy classes tend to draw participants from housekeeping and food services jobs, the School at Work program has been used by a broader cross-section of workers, including others from medical imaging, records, and telecommunications departments.

Once a student is ready for community college, he or she has a wider range of career options. For example, one menu clerk who enrolled in School at Work was able to qualify to work additional hours as a patient companion. She is now enrolled at Howard Community College, where she is studying to become a nurse.

This year, the grant will be used to fund not only the School at Work program, but also reading and ESL classes.

For all of these offerings, “We essentially try to recruit high-performing, very motivated, self-directed employees,” said Tiffany Hodge, the workforce development consultant at MedStar Montgomery.

The hospital said it has already seen a return on its investment in workforce development. Davis said that workers who have completed ESL classes provide better customer service because they feel more comfortable interacting with patients. Managers have been pleased that they no longer have to repeat instructions several times.

Among all participants in their training and education programs, Davis said she notices a strong loyalty to the hospital.

And, she said, they’ve improved “the quality of work that they provide and the quantity of work that they’re able to provide.”