Posted Thursday, July 7, 2022 by Laura Haffield

What’s Working to Solve the Staffing Crisis in Human Services?

Since the pandemic and so called “Great Resignation,” the staffing crisis has hit helping professions hard. These days it seems everyone is talking about it ... and for good reason. Long term care facilities, treatment centers, day cares and schools, and human services agencies—very few have not felt the effects of unprecedented levels of turnover and vacant positions.

In fact, Aysha E. Schomburg, associate commissioner for the Children’s Bureau, acknowledged the scope of the problem on the Child Welfare Information Gateway podcast, saying “I’m hearing about the mass resignations that are happening in our field, and our field is frankly in crisis.”

Recently at the American Public Human Services Association’s (APHSA) National Health and Human Services (NHHS) Summit, Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes said during a panel session, “Our workforce is our heartbeat.”

It is for this reason so many organizations have been hurting—heartbroken even.

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Key Factors Contributing to the Staffing Crisis in Human Services

Many of our partner agencies have reported 1/3 or more of their positions sitting vacant for extended periods of time, with very few applicants. A few examples:

  • A large county in New York reported that on average 100 applicants typically sit for the local civil service exam, the first step of the hiring process for many county-level roles, and recently there were only 10. A smaller county in New York reported they had no one sit for the exam at all.
  • Our panelists at the NHHS Summit, Justice Johnson from Cabarrus County Department of Social Services (NC) and Kara Davis from Cuyahoga County Children & Family Services (OH), shared their struggles with open positions. For example, Cuyahoga County is currently attempting to fill 110 positions.

Recruitment woes are clearly a part of the problem. Retention struggles and resulting turnover also have a large part to play. This is not a new phenomenon (turnover in child welfare on average sits around 20-40%) but has reached what feels like unprecedented levels in much of the country. Many agencies are reporting over 50% turnover or more. There has been much speculation to the sources: Baby boomers are retiring, child and adult care shortages have forced some out of the workplace, and the collective trauma of the pandemic has impacted helpers. All this on top of well-established causes of social work burnout.

Additionally, now more than ever, there are expectations of employers that can be difficult for government and non-profit agencies beholden to pre-determined budgets and policies to quickly adjust to—think pay, benefits, workplace flexibility arrangements, and workplace policy and culture that aligns with workers’ personal values. Dr. Laura Dresser, professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and associate director at think-and-do tank COWS, explained to me:

“For human services agencies, it’s really important to see the broader labor market dynamics right now. The broader context is higher wages and higher opportunity elsewhere.”

And with increasing compliance and documentation requirements, helpers are feeling more that they have to document their work instead of actually doing their work with families and children. These burdensome requirements take them away from why they became helpers in the first place.

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Best Practices for Tackling the Staffing Crisis in Human Services

The causes of recruitment and retention woes in human services are multi-pronged, and so must be the response. There is no one approach that will both stem the tide of turnover and simultaneously get more quality candidates in the door. Agencies facing this crisis must act quickly and boldly, employing strategies that are new and innovative. One thing’s for sure: we cannot simply hire our way out of this staffing crisis.

07-07-22 Recruitment and Retention-800x1132The good news? There are a ton of examples of thoughtful and innovative leaders across the country who are putting a great deal of energy and optimism into tackling this issue. And solving this will take all of us—from agencies working together sharing ideas and best practices, to vendors and consultants working together on your behalf and as your partners.

We’re all in this together—and the most important thing to remember as you look at this daunting situation is that you are not alone

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Recruitment: Attracting New Social Workers to Your Agency

The following is a roundup of best practices and related resources we have gathered from agency partners and industry thought leaders on both the recruitment and retention side of the solution.

Change the reputation and perception of what it means to work at your agency.

In this field, word of mouth is king. We are professional talkers and listeners by trade, after all. Your agency likely has a reputation that precedes it when applicants see open positions and consider applying.

Is it one of great benefits? Toxic work culture? Work hard/play hard mentality? Do they see deadlocked bureaucracy or a group of passionate people working together to make a difference?

A great example of elevating the perception of your workplace comes from Oklahoma Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown’s work to ensure the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is an “Elite Employer” as a driver of recruitment and retention. This has included creating a framework around career pathways, prioritizing staff’s social and emotional well-being, upholding work/life balance, and studying their payrates compared to inflation.

Stay competitive in the broader labor market.

As discussed, the context of the broader labor market is critical to keep forefront when tackling recruitment issues. Dr. Dresser stated, “It’s important to remember you’re in a hot labor market where one thing people want [working remotely] they can find.” She added, “one thing to keep in mind is that health insurance and being able to stay home when you’re sick have become more valuable.”

If your agency does well in these areas, Dr. Dresser recommends really focusing on those relative advantages to other work choices out there. “It is an under-advertised benefit. For a long time, the public sector has relied on the quality of the benefits to attract the workforce. Being more explicit about the structure of benefits and the value of those benefits might be a piece of leverage,” she said.

Dr. Dresser stressed that to stay competitive in the labor market, “you actually can throw money at the problem. Your relative position in the labor market is sliding if you are not throwing money by raising wages or other values,” because other sectors that do not require degrees definitely are. (Example: during a recent Social Current webinar, one director noted the UPS store down the street can raise their wages to $22/hour overnight but the county or their contracted service providers cannot do the same.)

And there is money out there to be thrown, especially through the American Rescue Plan Act’s $350 Billion allocated for State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. Check out this database to understand where organizations are allocating ARPA funds in ways that might help you too.

There are options outside of ARPA as well, for example:

Foster and maintain close partnerships with local academic institutions.

I want to shout this one from the rooftops. Social work programs continue to enroll thousands of students across the country every year who will enter the labor market specifically looking for work in this difficult and critically important field. An essential piece of recruitment efforts should be focused on establishing and maintaining the pipeline of enthusiastic talent from local colleges and universities to your agency.

Find the academics in your area who are passionate about developing the next generation of human services professionals and get to work on building mutually beneficial relationships. They need quality placements for their students’ field work, and you need quality well-prepared staff. It is a natural partnership.

There are many examples of this model working well. My own experience: I’m a graduate of the well-established UW-Madison Title IV-E Traineeship program, of which there are many sister programs across the country. In these programs students are specifically trained and prepared for child welfare and receive support in the form of tuition and/or stipends. In return, trainees agree to work in the field for a certain length of time. If a university near you does not have a similar program yet, it can still be established. At the NHHS Summit, UW-Eau Claire shared their journey of establishing a Title IV-E program and the benefits the school, their students, and surrounding agencies have experienced as a result.

Even if Title IV-E funding isn’t available for these types of programs in your state, there are other ways to foster and maintain partnerships. A few worth noting:

It’s also worth noting that while many of these examples focus on child welfare, this model could be replicated in a variety of program areas.

Regularly examine your policies to ensure they are not barriers to recruitment.

It’s important to continually revisit your hiring and recruitment policies to ensure they are not inadvertently barriers to getting great, motivated candidates in the door. For example, the process for social work certification and licensure after graduation in Wisconsin has historically been quite delayed, sometimes taking up to six to nine months. If an agency requires this type of certification or license prior to beginning work, new graduates are left waiting months before they can enter the workforce—sometimes meaning they begin work with other agencies or find another field altogether.

Instead, try strategies like these:

    • Consider probation periods while new hires wait for that important piece of paper or introducing other path-to-certification supports for new hires to make sure your agency is as well-positioned as possible to recruit.
    • Work with other state partners (read: advocate!) to examine this on a macro level. The state of Illinois, for example, removed the ASWB test requirement for non-clinical levels of licensure, due to the significant burden of access for many communities and the low risk of doing so. According to a recent presentation I heard from Joel Rubin, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Illinois Chapter, while they don’t yet have outcome data yet, the board reported processing an influx of applications after this change went into effect at the start of 2022.
    • Take a close look at what are considered qualifications of your positions and ensure these are not inadvertently barring amazing candidates from entry, who perhaps bring with them a wealth of lived or para-level experience but do not yet have the formal credentials.
    • Offer tuition reimbursement, licensure/certification exam reimbursement, formal mentorship, and other supports of the like that can be powerful recruitment tools.

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Retention: Supporting Caseworkers, Supervisors, and Other Staff Who Stay

So, you’ve managed to attract and hire amazing talent, now what? It’s time to invest in your workforce (financially or with policy change) in new and innovative ways to improve their day-to-day work experience, reduce aspects of the work that lead to burnout, and increase their capacity to do what they came to the field to do—work with people, affect change, and make an impact in their communities.

We’ve talked a lot about burnout through our guide, “A Deep Dive into Social Work Burnout (and What Your Human Services Agency Can Do About It,” but below are a few ideas summarized.

Provide your workforce the tools and support necessary to do their best work.

As you’ve heard us say many times before, technology does have a role to play in supporting the workforce. But we’re not alone. Organizational Theory states removing administrative burdens and barriers can allow workers to gain the emotional benefits of the job, which is a contributor to retention. I recently spoke with Dr. Tiffany Lindsey, an assistant professor and Safe Systems Practitioner at the University of Kentucky for another article and she echoed this opinion. She said, “Technology is how we connect and communicate, and technology can help us be safer in our practices. We have so much more that we can leverage with technology that helps us to create fidelity in our case practice, have meaningful workplace connections.”

When workers walk into this field and are immediately faced with antiquated systems that do more to hinder their work than help, it increases stress and frustration which contributes to burnout. It can be tough to justify tools and technology over other investments, but many agencies find it pays in dividends in supporting the workforce they have and demonstrating to potential hires that they take the support of their workforce seriously.

Some agencies are also recognizing that they can also support workers by removing time-consuming tasks from their to-do lists. Consider all the paperwork that workers are responsible for doing, in addition to spending time with clients. Requesting records, processing referrals, preparing documents for court, and organizing files—the list goes on. Often caseworkers have more of these tasks to complete than hours in the day, which makes it hard to keep up.

We launched Case Aide Services to help agencies provide dedicated support for caseworkers so they can focus on fostering healthier families without sacrificing their own well-being. Essentially, we handle the paperwork so they can handle the peopleworkCheck out our customer story, "Jackson County Overcoming Burnout and Turnover with Dedicated Caseworker Support," to learn more about how the agency is using Case Aide Services to support workers, promote psychological safety, reduce burnout, and ensure retention.

Embrace the labor market’s demand for flexible work policies.

While human services programs have traditionally been delivered from an in-person, brick and mortar model, we simply must adapt. Not only is attachment to an office hurting recruitment, but it is driving staff to find more flexible positions elsewhere. Positions in which employees can work from home, without face-to-face exposure or commutes, are all plentiful.

There are important considerations when going remote, such as how to keep staff connected to each other and how to support mentorship and quality supervision, both of which are critical contributors to retention. But agencies that do not make policy changes around this shift in how people work may soon see their staff leave for other organizations that do (or leave the field altogether). If you haven’t embraced flexible work models yet, honestly consider the reasons for not doing so and know that even implementing a day or two home a week is a place to start.

Our blog, “Hybrid is Here to Stay: How to Support Remote Teams in Human Services,” has more tips on this.

Ensure you are fostering a culture of psychological safety in your workplace.

The concept of psychological safety brings with it many tangible tools for how to assess and make a plan for improving the culture of your agency. As Dr. Lindsey explains, the goal of a psychologically safe workplace is to make staff feel “connected, accepted, respected, and supported” and “free to take an inter-personal risk, able to disclose a mistake, able to describe when you have a concern about a decision being made—willingness to engage in a point of disagreement.”

We recently put out a blog, “Self-Care is So Yesterday: How to Re-focus on Worker Well-Being and Foster Psychological Safety,” that dives into with many ideas for how to get started and more highlights from our conversation. The long and short of it? Worker well-being stems from the organizational culture of your agency and cannot simply be another individual responsibility on your workers’ plates. It must be led from the top down.

Prioritize staff wellness.

There are many examples of agencies implementing a variety of wellness programs, to various degrees of success. Vicarious and secondary trauma simply must be addressed, which means your agency’s wellness-related offerings must go beyond handing out a list of self-care ideas at a unit meeting. A couple of my favorite examples:

Offer professional development opportunities and promotional pathways.

In the New Jersey example, another key area of focus was providing opportunities for education, training, and professional development. This was true in a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services case study as well, whose multi-pronged strategy to curb turnover resulted in a 27.5% decrease in turnover in just one year. There are many ways you could operationalize in this broad category, such as:

    • Erie County Department of Social Services (NY) worked with NCWWI to support staff tuition as they went back to school to receive degrees related to child welfare.
    • A worker at Clark County Social Services (NV) said the county provides promotional readiness classes and in-house development training.
    • Connecticut DCF established an internal Workforce Development Agency in conjunction with NCCWI and Casey Family Programs. As Jodi Hill-Lilly, director, Academy for Workforce Development, Connecticut DCF, described the agency’s work on the Child Welfare Information Gateway podcast, their leadership development process, “has literally resurrected careers in this agency.”

Maybe you can throw money at it.

Another part of the solution? Staff must feel valued. Circling back to what Dr. Dresser said about throwing money at recruitment problems, “stay” or retention bonuses show current staff that their expertise and tenure is incredibly valuable too.

For example, Minnesota currently has a bill for $260 million in retention (and hiring) bonuses for human services and long-term care. These bonuses sometimes have incentives around staying at the agency for a certain amount of time, and sometimes have zero strings attached. And of course, just as increasing wages is important for recruitment, it’s important for retention too.

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Supporting and Sustaining the Human Services Workforce

I could not agree with Commissioner Dorantes more that the human services workforce—made up of passionate, patient, motivated humans—is the heartbeat of our agencies and this work. Echoing this sentiment, Mildred Joyner, president of NASW, said in her opening remarks at last month’s NASW Annual Conference that this workforce is what kept this nation going along these last few years.

Now is the time for the workforce to stand up and ask for more. And now is the time for us all to recognize those monumental efforts for our communities and clients by providing them more.

It is often the case that doing so means being an advocate at large tables with competing priorities. I want to reiterate—you are not alone. You can do this. They are worth the fight. And we stand beside you in that advocacy because the work you all do is critical for the well-being and healing of our society as a whole.

Laura Haffield began her career as a social worker in public child welfare. She earned a master’s in social work from University of Wisconsin – Madison as a Title IV-E Public Child Welfare Trainee. As director of advocacy, she draws on this experience to be the bridge between Northwoods’ internal and external audiences. She ensures the social worker is the most important person in every decision, from what we build, to how we implement, to how we support our partners along the way.

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