Apprenticeship training model expands to mental health workers


Apprenticeship isn’t just for manual trades in construction and manufacturing. Starting this year, local union members who work in mental health and addiction treatment are enrolling in on-the-job, union-supported workforce training. 

AFSCME’s United We Heal Training Trust has graduated one apprentice into journey-level, and has 27 more who are working through the program.

United We Heal apprentice René Alton

“Having an apprenticeship in the mental health field is super valuable,” said AFSCME Local 1790 member Deidre Hall, who’s enrolled in the program. Hall works for Cascadia Health as a “certified recovery mentor” at an addiction treatment program.

United We Heal Training Trust is a training nonprofit jointly overseen by union designees and representatives of participating employers. Mid-Columbia Center for Living, Clatsop Behavioral Health, and Cascadia Health (formerly Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare) are early employer participants in the program, which launched in September 2021. The program trains workers to become Qualified Mental Health Associates (QMHA). QMHA is a certification issued by the Mental Health & Addiction Certification Board of Oregon that recognizes added skill, and can result in higher pay. There were about 4,900 QMHA-certified mental health workers in Oregon at the beginning of 2022, according to a report prepared for the Oregon Health Authority.

The QMHA apprenticeship is a registered apprenticeship program (RAP) with the Bureau of Labor & Industries (BOLI). It was approved by the Oregon State Apprenticeship Training Council in September 2021.

“If you are looking to expand yourself in the field, a QMHA is almost like your first step to getting somewhere,” said René Alton, a counselor at Cascadia Health and member of AFSCME Local 1790. 

That’s true whether workers use the certification to apply for a more skilled position, or stay in their current jobs. Under AFSCME’s union contract with Cascadia, workers jump from $20 per hour to $22.65 immediately after getting their QMHA certification, according to the training trust.

AFSCME is paying for members to go through the program, and is receiving federal funding from the Department of Labor to defray the costs.

The apprenticeship program includes a classroom component offered online by Eastern Gateway Community College, a public college in Ohio. Apprentices take courses in psychology, social work and health care law for as long as 12 months. While in school, their day jobs count toward on-the-job supervised experience required for the certification.

United We Heal apprentice Deidre Hall

In Hall’s current role, she connects with clients as they enter Cascadia’s outpatient treatment program—helping them find recovery support meetings and even accompanying them to the meetings. When she learned about the apprenticeship through an email list, she was interested immediately.

So far, Hall has completed courses in social work and psychology, and in August she started second-level social work and abnormal psychology classes.

“I’m finally in a field that I’m super passionate about, and I just want to learn everything and do everything that I can,” Hall said.

Alton works for Cascadia Health in a facility where clients rest and recover after leaving a hospital or shelter. She learned about the apprenticeship from a coworker who had just completed it, and enrolled in January. She’s completed four out of the six required courses and plans to finish by the end of the year. She’s also working her way through 2,000 hours of on-the-job professional experience. Once she’s done, she can apply for QMHA certification through the Mental Health and Addiction Certification Board of Oregon (MHACBO), which will administer a test and, if passed, the QMHA credentials.

Sarah Drake, QMHA program manager for United We Heal, says the training trust is looking to expand by getting more employers to become “training agents” like Cascadia.


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