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Addressing Workforce Shortages

Updated: 4 days ago


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A survey conducted in Massachusetts by the Human Services Providers Charitable Foundation in October and November 2022 revealed a 27 percent vacancy rate among human services providers, indicating a critical need for skilled worker retention. The survey encompassed more than 13,000 full-time, part-time, and per diem customer-facing positions, highlighting the unprecedented importance of retaining skilled workers. According to the report, human services employment decreased by 10 percent between 2016 and 2020. This decline emphasizes the urgency for effective resource allocation. Current inefficiencies not only affect workers’ productivity but also raise questions about the optimal utilization of available resources within Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies.

Addressing the Shortage

Published in March 2023, a report on the exodus of state and local public employees offers some insight into the causes of the workforce shortages. The study used data from 2017 and 2021 and compared 2017’s intent to leave or retire with actual separations through 2021 among agency staff. Analyzing employee age, region, and intent to leave, nearly half of agency employees left between 2017 and 2021, rising to three-quarters for those aged thirty-five and younger or with shorter tenures. If separation trends persist, by 2025 over 100,000 staff may leave. Analyzing what causes workers to want to leave will allow HHS departments and other governmental departments to prioritize strategies for recruitment and retention is crucial.

Increasing Wages as the Solution?

According to the Human Services Providers Charitable Foundation Report, the median income for human service workers is $34,273, which is $15,000 below the state median in Massachusetts. One-sixth of these workers earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The industry has a higher representation of women and people of color compared to the state average, with 80 percent of workers identifying as women and 36 percent as people of color. Additionally, the report notes a trend where many low-paid human services workers are transitioning to other industries like education and state agencies.

Concerns about worker’s income have been noted by the University of Washington’s (UW) “Wage Equity Studyfor human services workers. Published in February 2023, the study identified a 37 percent wage gap between nonprofit human services workers and those in other industries, despite evidence that human services work is equally demanding and skilled. Low wages in the nonprofit human services sector, as reported by various public and private entities, adversely affect staff recruitment and retention.

The “Wage Equity Study” market analysis revealed a 37 percent wage gap between non-profit human service workers and those in non-care industries, requiring a 59 percent wage increase for closure. Workers leaving the human services industry for other jobs experience a net pay increase of seven percent a year later. Job evaluation showed that the gaps don’t result from lower pay due to easier or less demanding work. The “Wage Equity Study” recommends a seven percent wage increase by 2025 for human services workers to curb attrition to higher-paying jobs. It suggests separating wage equity increases from inflationary raises. By 2030, substantial wage increases are recommended to align with comparable sectors.

Increased wages are only part of the solution, funding alone won’t fully tackle workforce challenges. The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act allocated $7.4 billion for the state and local governmental public health workforce. Of this, $3.9 billion was designated for a new grant program supporting agency infrastructure. However, in 2024 workforce shortages are still a reality, indicating wages are only part of the problem. To optimize resources, strategies should prioritize enhancing educational access, modernizing talent acquisition, improving workplace culture, training existing workers, addressing student debt, and enhancing systems for monitoring workforce trends.

What Else Must Be Addressed?

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated workforce challenges for HHS agencies. Employees faced criticism, harassment, and threats due to anxiety over pandemic consequences and growing mistrust of evidence-based thinking. Planned retirements and transitions, combined with these challenges, significantly impact the workforce.

In the report, “The Exodus of State and Local Public Health Employees: Separations Started Before and Continued throughout COVID-19,” its analysis of ninety-six agencies, approximately half of all state and local governmental public health agency employees left between 2017 and 2021. Pandemic-related stress, burnout, and increased hostility toward public health officials contributed to these outcomes. Public health employees and HHS workers face similar challenges as they are fundamentally dedicated to serving the community and promoting well-being. Their primary focus is on improving the health and quality of life of individuals and populations. Both professions involve direct interaction with customers or communities and advocate for the needs of their communities. Both departments respond to crises the American public faces. Workers of both departments are on the front lines of government support and deal with hostile customers, stress, and burnout. Both departments face the challenges associated with government work such as low pay and work overload.

To reiterate the report’s findings, pay, lack of advancement opportunities, work, overload, job satisfaction, and stress are the main reasons workers consider leaving the HHS departments. These must be addressed to increase retention. Workers choose to stay due to the benefits offered, job stability, satisfaction with their supervisors, and pride in the organization’s mission.

Solutions

To improve worker retention rates and increase recruitment, agencies should

  • Provide job training programs to enhance job satisfaction and cultivate a skilled workforce. This not only demonstrates a commitment to employee growth but also attracts individuals seeking continuous learning.

  • Highlight existing advancement opportunities within the organization and consider introducing new ones.

  • Adopt new technologies to streamline employee workflows and, by extension, reduce stress levels.

  • Enhance employee compensation, recognizing that low pay adversely affects retention and staff recruitment.

  • Evaluate and update benefits packages to align with the evolving needs of the workforce. This may include healthcare coverage, retirement plans, and other perks that appeal to potential hires. 

  • Create avenues for employees to provide feedback. Regular surveys or feedback sessions can help identify areas for improvement and demonstrate a commitment to employee input.

  • Implement leadership training for supervisors, recognizing the pivotal role of supervisor quality in staff retention.

  • Emphasize the agency’s mission, allowing employees to grasp the significance of their work.

  • Foster community engagement to boost worker pride in their contributions and garner increased community support.

Conclusion

The surveys and reports underscore a pressing need to address workforce challenges in HHS. The 27 percent vacancy rate among human services providers and the concerning turnover rates in state and local governmental public health agencies demand immediate attention.

While the “Wage Equity Study” emphasizes the importance of increased wages, it also highlights that this alone is not a comprehensive solution. The complex nature of the problem requires a multifaceted approach. The identified reasons for worker retention and departure further emphasize the need for a strategic and holistic approach. Offering job training programs, creating advancement opportunities, adopting technology for efficiency, and providing competitive compensation are key elements. Additionally, benefits, job stability, supervisor satisfaction, and a sense of pride in the organization’s mission are essential factors that contribute to worker satisfaction and retention.

The suggested solutions aim to create a workplace environment that supports and values its employees, ultimately fostering a resilient and dedicated workforce. By addressing the identified challenges comprehensively, HHS agencies can work toward building a more stable, skilled, and satisfied workforce, ensuring their ability to effectively serve their communities.

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