Lakeside High School senior Drew Dominguez used to work at Publix as a cashier.
Now he's a certified nursing assistant working in the store's pharmacy.
"It's a good learning experience, and it will help me get my foot in the door. I want to be a pharmacist," said Mr. Dominguez, 18.
He is among 20 Columbia County health care science technology students who have moved from behind their school desks directly into paying positions at area hospitals and pharmacies through the Youth Apprenticeship Program.
"With the shortages in the medical community, there is such a need," said Rhonda Dunn, a registered nurse and the health care science technology instructor at Lakeside High School. "Instead of me having to say, 'Please take a second look at this student's application,' now they are asking me, 'How many do you have?'"
Through the health care science program at Evans, Lakeside and Greenbrier high schools, students become certified nursing assistants trained in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and use of an automatic external defibrillator.
"Those are the keys unlocking the doors to these opportunities," Mrs. Dunn said. "But we are not just producing nurses. A lot of the kids are going into physical therapy, pharmacy, pre-med and nursing."
Melvin Stewart, the Youth Apprenticeship coordinator for the CSRA Regional Educational Service Agency, is a liaison between schools and businesses to arrange these opportunities.
"They like the idea of going out and getting work experience their senior year. They get paid for it, and it goes on their schedule the same as any other elective," he said.
Mildred Johnson, Doctors Hospital's clinical coordinator and adjunct faculty for nursing students, is supervising nine students from Columbia County.
"It gives them the opportunity to get real live, hands-on experience," she said. "The patients really love them, and the staff loves them too. They are diligent workers."
Greenbrier High senior Patrice Newton plans to attend nursing school when she graduates from high school. But as a certified nursing assistant, she has already begun her training at Doctors Hospital, where she has worked since August.
She plans to become a registered nurse and is happy to know she likely will have a job waiting when she graduates.
On Thursday, she checked patient Hugh Dawson's blood pressure, reading the numbers aloud to him.
"If you need anything else, just let us know," she said, wheeling the machine from the room.
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113,