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Children's Voice Article, November/December 2003

Help Wanted

As one generation of social service workers nears retirement, and today's college graduates pursue other careers, child welfare agencies look to fill the void.

by Scott Kirkwood

Child welfare experts have been warning of a workforce crisis in the field for years, based on the imminent retirement of many older workers and the constant difficulties agencies have encountered in trying to recruit new workers. Although a sluggish stock market and an economic recession have kept many workers in place for longer that most had expected, there's no question the workforce ensuring the health and safety of our children will soon be only a fraction of what it is today.

"Absolutely no one in human services is planning for this crisis, and it's going to hit us hard," says Janice M. Nittoli, Manager of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Human Services Workforce Initiative. "People are retiring from the field and getting replaced by a cohort that is smaller and arguably less talented than those who are leaving."

Indeed, the next generation of workers has little or no interest in pursuing careers in social services--not surprising, considering the positions generally pay little more than minimum wage and involve a great amount of responsibility, exposure to tragic events, little managerial support, and even less recognition. According to an Annie E. Casey survey of college seniors, the few individuals who are interested in the field don't possess the most dazzling transcripts, either.

What's an HR director to do?

Crisis? What Crisis?

Many of the problems facing the child welfare workforce have always been around, so some may ask, "Where's the crisis?" But the imminent retirements and the quality and quantity of the individuals replacing these workers exacerbate the problems.

"One thing that makes this industry remarkably unappealing is the incredibly low status assigned to it," Nittoli says. "We like to say we care about our kids in this country, but according to the Department of Labor, social services is consistently the lowest paid industry."

The one thing that keeps these workers coming back to work every day is the hope that they can make a difference. But most don't have the time, resources, and supports to do the job well. And that leads to common annual turnover rates that hover around 40%.

"You have the most vulnerable families in the country, and workers who probably have the most to decide about some of the most intimate and pivotal issues in their life," Nittoli explains. "'Is this family going to stay together? Will this child be tracked in special education for the rest of his life? Will this child have a meaningful experience of warmth and stimulation in child care or get plunked in front of a TV set?' The people in these positions are ridiculously underpaid and underappreciated. And because of the turnover, they're ridiculously overworked, because they have to do someone else's job when [other workers] quit." It's a vicious circle, as new workers come on and more experienced workers move on.

Fortunately, social services has a few factors in its favor.

"The good news is there is a platform to build on in terms of change," Nittoli says. "This workforce is more mission-driven than any other public service sector, and certainly more mission-driven than the private for-profit workforce. The overwhelming majority of the people in the front lines of human services are there for the clients, for the kids and family, so this isn't a group that's frustrated because they hate their jobs. These people want to do the right thing, but they're frustrated because they aren't always able to."

The second bit of good news is that nonprofits and government groups are conducting research in this area, which means the coming years should bring more evidence of what keeps human service workers satisfied.

Already, it's clear agencies can do a number of things to improve the recruitment and retention of a quality workforce--some at substantial cost, some at no cost.

What Works

Research supported by the Casey Foundation has revealed that many people who wanted to work in social services didn't know how to find the jobs, so it's important to increase the ease and appeal of the hiring process.

Michigan centralized its hiring process for front-line workers by adopting Internet-based recruitment, which is easier and less bureaucratic. The state also budgeted a slight increase in salaries--not a lot, but enough to signal a change in the status of these jobs.

Casey's research indicates that human service workers don't expect to make a fortune in their field, but simply want to be recognized and appreciated for their hard work. A small annual bonus or raise may not seem like much to those offering it, but it signals something to those receiving it.

Michigan also adopted a just-in-time training program to prepare experienced workers next in line for promotion. Rather than waiting for a worker to quit, then scrambling to find qualified applicants while remaining staff split the extra work, the goal is to always have a few eligible candidates ready to step in immediately. Not only do the new workers appreciate the preparation, but having trained replacements ready helps manage everyone's workload. When vacancies are filled quickly, workloads decrease and turnover decreases as well.

Another common problem is that promotion is often the only way to earn a salary increase. Workers may have to choose between continuing in a position they enjoy and climbing to a supervisory position that pays more but holds little interest for them. Few workers can pass up the money, which often means an agency ends up with one less qualified caseworker and one more unhappy, unmotivated supervisor.

"Clearly, children and families would ultimately benefit from a system in which workers at all levels are able to earn a 'livable' wage, enabling them to stay longer in their positions," says Floyd Alwon, who oversees CWLA's workforce development initiative.

Several years ago, with turnover levels approaching 60%, New York's Administration for Children's Services decided to add three rungs to its child protective service worker positions, with pay increases at each. Six years later, turnover has been cut in half.

Back to School

If one approach to retention involves changing the agency, another involves changing the worker. Forty percent of social workers are over 45, compared with a third of the overall U.S. workforce. As of 1999, 42% of all state and local government employees were eligible for retirement, a figure that most likely reflects the human services segment of that group as well. If child welfare agencies are going to replace these workers, they'll need to persuade current workers to stay, rather than look to recruit fresh faces from the college ranks.

"Research shows that the people who are more likely to stay are those who are better prepared to do the work," says Joan Levy Zlotnik, Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research in Washington, DC. "The question is, are we training a significant number of people to do that work? Are agencies willing to pay to have a well-trained workforce? People who go to school and incur loans want to get a job that's going to respect and reinforce the fact that they have a professional education.

"That's always been one of the dilemmas--when agencies say they want to hire people who have social work degrees but then they don't actually have job classifications that require social work degrees, workers think, 'If anyone can get this job, why did I spend so much time and money getting a degree?'"

In an effort to increase the knowledge and skills of their workers and help workers apply those skills, many agencies are developing ongoing partnerships with schools of social work, with the help of federal funding sources such as Title IV-E.

"Nevada has made a real effort toward professionalization," Zlotnik says, "particularly at the supervisor level, and it's seen a real increase in the educational level of supervisors in the last couple years."

Council on Accreditation standards in Illinois require all supervisors to have a master's degree in social work or a human services field, which has led more than 200 supervisors to return to school to receive their master's degree in social work. Although some supervisors were less than thrilled with the prospect of attending classes, most saw it as a positive experience that increased their knowledge and the likelihood they would remain with the agency. Illinois has also forged a partnership between child welfare agencies and universities, creating a research-practice-education loop that eventually feeds back into staff training.

Leake and Watts Services in New York has taken the collegiate model to an international level. For five years, working with the office of the First Lady of Colombia and universities in South America, the agency has placed some 50 interns--with recent degrees in psychology, social work, and other human services--in social service agencies in New York City and Baltimore.

About 25 workers are enrolled in the program at a time, and most get help with housing, and a small stipend from the agency. All the candidates are bilingual and have graduated from intense five-year programs that include community work and coursework comparable to a master's degree in the United States, so they bring skills and experience often lacking among newly minted U.S. graduates.The results have been so good that many of the agencies affiliated with Leake and Watts are requesting even more workers, so the program will soon expand to include 50 recent graduates from Colombian universities.

Work After Work

Jay Bloom, President and CEO of Morrison Center Child and Family Services in Portland, Oregon, is looking at the other end of the spectrum for new workers whose school days are long behind them.

"One strategy--but not the only strategy--that we've begun to pursue is looking at a new workforce that has not traditionally been a part of our world," he says. "We refer to them as experienced workers, or work-after-work people--they're retirees, people beginning their second careers."

This hiring strategy recognizes the flip side of the retirement crunch--not only are human services workers retiring from their jobs, but workers from every other industry will also be retiring in the next 10 years, and few will want to be idle.

"Every eight seconds, someone in this country turns 50," Bloom points out. "Studies by AARP and Allstate show that as many as 80% of these folks…want to work after their retirement. 'Work' isn't necessarily defined as paid work--it could be volunteer work--but these people want to stay active."

This new workforce won't be putting in too many 40-hour weeks, nor will they always want to work 9 to 5. "We have to create alternative work structures that allow for more part-time work, more flexible work, more episodic work, and jobs that can be done by volunteers," Bloom says. "We have to start thinking much more creatively about how to use this different workforce, a growing workforce, versus trying to compete harder and harder for the younger workforce."

Bloom's agency doesn't refer to these workers as seniors, elderly, or even mature, but rather as experienced or seasoned. He's even coined the word returnment--giving back or returning in some small way what the world has given you. "We're going after people who are motivated not by compensation but by meaning--they want more purpose, they want training, they want social contact, and they want flexibility. We've got lots of meaning, we can offer good training, we can provide a good work environment. The question is, can we develop the flexibility and the infrastructure to deal with that new workforce?"

Staying Flexible

Flexibility may be the key to recruiting and retaining workers of every age. A telework program in Texas allows employees to work from their home offices from one to five days a week.

Originated in 2000, the program allows caseworkers to spend less time on the road--especially helpful in large metropolitan areas where traffic is a concern. Because many are driving to and from clients' homes daily, removing the need to come into the office means one less destination.

The program also allows more flexible scheduling--when the demands of the job require long hours one week, workers can take off time the next. Employees work certain core hours, say 10:00 am - 2:00 pm, so they are easily reachable. Beyond that, they're expected to stay in touch with the main office with cell phones they purchase themselves, with help from a monthly subsidy from the agency.

Workers are able to access files and track clients from their home computers and laptops. Because they don't work standard hours, they can concentrate on the times their clients are home--either in the morning or in the early evening.

During a pilot study, the agency compared two units--one with teleworkers, one without. The unit with teleworkers had a significantly higher retention rate. Today, out of 1,600 employees at the agency, 540 choose the teleworking option at least a few days every week.

The needs of the client still come first, though: In some rural areas, it's important to have staff in the agency's offices during regular business hours, so workers may not be able to take full advantage of the program in every instance.

The only concern is some supervisors' discomfort when workers are out of their sight. "It's a control issue," says Ralph Salinas, Recruitment and Retention Manager for the Texas Health and Human Services System. "But it's just a matter of training supervisors how to manage teleworkers. When supervisors ask, 'How am I going to know if my employees are working?' our question back to them is, 'How do you know they're working [in the office]?' There will always be a work product and a work expectation. You don't need to let everybody work this way, but you've got to offer the program to your better, trustworthy workers, the ones you want to keep and retain within the agency."

Other managers have raised questions about workers' compensation, but Salinas says teleworkers receive the same coverage whether they're working in the office, at home, or traveling from one client's home to the next.

Teleworking isn't Texas's only answer to retention problems. The state is also considering job-sharing and short-term programs to address burnout. Under one proposal, workers who find themselves struggling with their daily duties after six to eight months would have the option of rotating to a related position that uses their knowledge but doesn't require them to work closely with families. Workers would be expected to return to their original position after a brief respite, and the agency would hope to hold onto staff who might otherwise walk away.

Alwon was initially concerned that the downturn in the economy, while helpful in the short run, would inhibit creative workforce development initiatives that have begun throughout the country. He is optimistic, however, that substantial momentum has been created and will continue. He cites the efforts of national organizations, including research by the Casey Foundation and the U.S. General Accounting Office, and recent multiyear initiatives funded by the U.S. Children's Bureau.

Just as the health of the nation's economy is likely to ebb and flow over time, the size and strength of the child welfare workforce will be subject to many factors. There's no doubt a workforce crisis is coming--for some agencies, it's already arrived. But the agencies that will succeed are those that can adapt with the changing climate, attract new workers to a field that is not always valued, and prepare current workers to lead the field, as its professionals work to help the next generation of children in their care.

Scott Kirkwood is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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