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Home > Consultation and Training > Trieschman Center for Consultation & Training > Workforce Development Initiative


2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Enhancing Worker Retention and Development Through Career Ladders and Training Programs

William P. Martone and Joanne Solek
The Sycamores
Pasadena, CA

We are facing a work force crisis in this country that is going to greatly affect the quality of service delivery to children and families if we are unable to find methods to recruit and retain qualified staff. The extent of the problem varies regionally throughout the country, with reports of up to 70% turnover rates for direct care staff in some areas. As competition among organizations increases for an ever-limited pool of qualified candidates, new strategies and techniques need to be employed. Since no one technique or strategy is going to solve the problem, organizations are going to need to look at a range of options. This paper will explore the experiences of a not-for-profit, child welfare agency located in Los Angeles County, California and its attempts to implement strategies to address this issue. Emphasis will be placed on two critical strategies: the development of career ladders and training programs.

Our Agency's Experience

The Sycamores is a multi-service children's mental health organization that was founded in 1902 as the first orphanage in Pasadena. Today, a broad array of services is offered to children and their families. These services include residential treatment, community group homes, two special education schools, therapeutic foster care and adoption, in-home family services, a family resource center, school-based services, mental health day treatment programs and wraparound. Over 370 staff deliver these services across 13 sites with an annual operating budget of $16 million dollars.

We have been experiencing an increasing competition for staff in the Los Angeles area. The expansion of children's Medicaid services in the County has greatly increased the demand for staff by numerous mental health agencies. This, coupled with our own organizational growth, has led us to explore a variety of strategies to address recruitment and retention issues. We began by looking at our five-year history of turnover, which we are defining as both voluntary and involuntary terminations.

Year Total Number of Agency Staff Total Terminations % Direct Care Staff % Other Staff % Clinical Staff %
1996 128 51 39.8 23 17.9 20 15.6 8 6.2
1997 159 53 33.3 31 19.4 18 11.3 4 2.5
1998 200 64 32 30 15 30 15 4 2
1999 292 101 34.5 53 18.1 36 12.3 12 4.1
2000 340 106 31.1 58 17 33 9.7 15 4.4

Additionally, our employee survey feedback and exit interviews were supporting the findings reported by Alwon and Reitz (2000) regarding the factors leading to employee dissatisfaction and turnover. These factors include, but are not limited to, poor supervisory relationships, unmanageable duties (perceived), peer conflicts, poor training and preparation, lack of advancement opportunities, and less-than-desirable salary. The strategies we then began to employ were implemented simultaneously over the past year. Recruitment and retention was identified as an organizational performance improvement goal and an interdisciplinary task force was identified to address the issue. Primary initial steps included: increasing salaries, obtaining an organizational consultant to look at recruitment and retention issues, introducing career ladders for direct care, and clinical staff and enhancing the staff development program with a methods training program for direct care staff.

Implementation of Strategies

Salary Increases

While we do not believe salary is the sole or even primary reason for turnover, the need for an adequate, competitive salary is essential. Rate increase dollars were utilized to provide salary adjustments for approximately 90% of the organization's positions and the merit increment amounts for the coming year were increased. Salaries are continually monitored for compression and credit is given for educational background and prior experience during our salary calculations.

Organizational Consultant

An organizational development consultant team was obtained on a pro bono basis to look at our recruitment and retention issues. The team met with our administrative and executive management teams to better understand the problems and then held employee focus groups. Telephone surveys were conducted with staff that had terminated. The feedback from the focus groups and telephone surveys was then shared with a selected staff retention task force who responded to the feedback and recommendations. Recommendations focused on direct care staff input into job specific issues, the need for effective and consistent department meetings, and effective communication tools.

Career Ladders

As a method of addressing advancement opportunities, career ladders were developed and implemented for our direct care and clinical staff. Steps were designed to allow for continued growth over time and to move a direct care worker through supervisory leadership positions. Our goal is to develop senior/supervisory staff internally and not have to recruit outside for these positions. The criteria for movement on the ladder at any level includes meeting the education, experience, training, and performance requirements. The first step on the Associate Counselor career ladder is the entry point for staff without prior experience and the only requirement is educational. The second step on this ladder, Associate Counselor II, can be obtained after one year as an Associate Counselor I (the experience requirement), completing training requirements and having a merit rating at one of the top two levels on our five-level merit scale. Job responsibilities increase and a greater ability to work independently is expected. We also allow staff to be directly hired in at this level with two years of residential or related experience. In order to move to the Associate Counselor III position, a worker must spend one year as an Associate Counselor II and meet the training and performance requirements. Again we allow for the opportunity to directly hire staff in at this level with three years of residential/related experience. The next step is to an Associate Counselor IV position, which requires a year as an Associate Counselor III and completion of training requirements and achieving the required performance rating. We will not hire outside staff directly in at the Associate Counselor IV level, a staff must be promoted to this level.

We have developed a similar career ladder for our Senior Counselor/Program Specialist/Program Supervisor positions that allows for four additional steps for our direct care staff to move through. A promotion to the next step on either of these career ladders results in a salary increase that is in addition to the merit increment the worker can earn that year. Both the promotion percentage and merit increment amounts are set each year based upon the current budget situation and Board of Director approval. For fiscal year 2000-2001 the promotional increase percentage was 3% and the merit increments ranged from 0% to 5%. Training is a key component of the career ladder and participation in training is necessary in order to be promoted. The training requirements are described in more detail under the staff development section below. A similar clinical career ladder has also been designed utilizing the same basic components.

Staff Development

Staff development is a crucial component of an employee retention program. We have found this to be especially important for direct care workers who often begin their employment with no specific course work or experience in child development or behavior management. We have established a staff development committee that meets regularly to oversee the implementation of all training for the agency. Our staff development efforts are overseen by a Coordinator of Staff Development who also has 50% of the time of an administrative assistant available to them. We have also utilized a six-step training process for the development of new training programs. This process includes:
  1. Assess Needs - identify issues and training needs and set training priorities.

  2. Establish Objectives - determine general learning goals and establish instructional objectives.

  3. Design Training - determine the specific learning domains to be targeted, select appropriate training techniques and plan the training sessions (e.g., sequence, schedule, length, notification).

  4. Set the Climate for Learning - explore site considerations, need to be sensitive to trainees, and importance of trainee recognition.

  5. Deliver the Training - ensure thorough preparation of materials and trainers.

  6. Evaluate the Training -collect feedback on each session, consider pre/post tests, and an overall impact evaluation.
The overall agency staff development program is designed to provide training agency wide and is composed of the following components:

New Hire Orientation - Six hours reviewing the employee handbook, agency policies, employee benefits, and basic safety programs.

New Hire Checklist - A tour of the work site, introductions to staff and clients, and an overview of expectations and job responsibilities. A checklist format is utilized to ensure all issues are covered.

Pre-Service - An 80-hour, two week program for all direct care staff which includes participation in small group learning activities and discussions. Observation on the living units, training in PART (professional assault response training) and First Aid/CPR is also part of the first two weeks. New employees are not left alone with clients during this two-week period.

Mentoring Program - Senior counselors, program specialists, teachers or clinicians may serve as mentors who model skills, explain procedures and provide on-the-job training to new direct care employees. Mentors work with supervisors to track progress and identify additional training needs for new staff during their three-month orientation period.

Agency Staff Orientation - This overview of the entire agency is offered every two months and focuses on the agency mission, values, treatment philosophy and a review of programs and services. The program is led by agency leadership and is for all agency employees.

Agency-Wide In-Service Training - These trainings may be specific to a department or agency-wide and include such topics as facility safety, disaster preparedness, fire safety, abuse reporting.

Program Specific Training - These trainings are offered during regularly scheduled staff meeting on topics that are department or unit specific. Topics could include the use of protective equipment, completing progress reports, etc.

Train the Trainer - This is a two-day training session designed to prepare our staff to become effective trainers. The topics include getting started as a trainer, adults as learners, training design and teaching methods, ice breaker activities, culturally-competent training and training resources.

Manager Training - The training program for managers consists of an initial orientation, bi-monthly training sessions on various topics, and the CWLA Trieschman Effective Supervision course. A formalized program of six topics offered on a yearly basis is currently under development.

Consultation - Psychiatric consultation is available to all programs and services and outside consultants are brought in on a variety of topics such as wraparound skill building, cultural competency, strength-based treatment planning etc.

Conference & Workshop Attendance - Staff are encouraged to attend relevant outside conferences, workshops and seminars that will enhance their skills. Attendance is part of an overall training plan for each employee and reimbursement for expenses is provided for all approved sessions.

Tuition Assistance - A tuition assistance program is available for staff members who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate studies in areas that are related to the agency's mission.

Direct Care Staff Training: Methods I - IV - This training program is offered to all direct care staff and is part of the mandatory training requirements needed to achieve career ladder promotions. Clinical staff may participate in either specific sessions or the entire series as determined in conjunction with their supervisor. Each series is composed of five topics and each topic is presented in a workshop format of a six-hour session (five contact training hours). The series is offered either five weeks in a row (Methods I) or monthly for five months (Methods II - IV). We have determined the topics for Methods I and II and will continue through a needs assessment process to determine the remaining topics for Methods III and IV. The topics for Methods I and II include:

Methods I
  • Working with Challenging Children
  • The Direct Care Counselor as a Treatment Professional
  • Family Engagement and Cultural Awareness
  • The Therapeutic Milieu
  • Group Process and Group Work
Methods II
  • Discipline as a Growth Process
  • Child Empowerment
  • Attachment and Loss
  • Human Sexuality & Residential Care
  • Activity Planning & Community Resources
The Methods training program is taught by senior counselors, program specialists, supervisors, and clinical staff. All instructors have either extensive training skills or have participated in our Train the Trainer program. Our staff development coordinator oversees the implementation of this program and does all scheduling and coordination of trainers' needs. We have implemented this program one year ago and are in the process of rolling out the complete Methods program over the next several years. All staff hired prior to implementation are expected to participate in this training and must attend all sessions to be eligible for promotions through the career ladder.

Clinical Training Program -The clinical training program consists of all the applicable components of our overall staff development program in addition to ongoing clinical supervision, external trainings, field trips and quarterly trainings. Formal clinical supervision is offered for all MSWs, MFTs and Psychologists. One hour per week of individual supervision along with one hour per week of group supervision is offered. An additional hour per week is also provided if an employee is currently unlicensed. Clinical staff are required to obtain 36 hours of Continuing Education every two years to maintain licensure in California. Expenses for the external trainings clinical staff attend to meet this requirement are covered by the agency. Field trips are periodically scheduled to take clinical staff to other agencies or programs to learn methods of practice or program development we are interested in incorporating into our service delivery system. Quarterly trainings are also scheduled for all agency-wide clinical staff. Some of the topics offered the past year include confidentiality/ethics/legal issues, strength based/family focused treatment and special education/parent rights procedures. These quarterly sessions are scheduled as full day workshops. The future direction for the clinical training program includes conducting a formal needs assessment that will be used as a basis for the development of Methods program, but not as extensive due to the formal educational background of the clinical staff.


No single strategy alone is going to address an organization's employee retention issue; rather a comprehensive program is needed. This paper has attempted to identify several of the strategies The Sycamores has employed to begin to focus on this complex issue. These strategies are far from comprehensive and many other areas need further exploration. We will continue to measure the impact of each strategy over time and attempt to learn if it is indeed helping our retention issues. We are finding some promising responses about our increased training programs in our employee opinion surveys, but it is too early to determine the impact. Further study is crucial to the whole area of recruitment and retention.


Alwon, F., & Reitz, A. (2000). The workforce crisis in child welfare: An issue brief. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.

Contact Information

William P. Martone and Joanne Solek
The Sycamores
210 South De Lacey Avenue Suite 110
Pasadena, California 91105
Phone: 626.395.7100
Fax: 626.395.7270
Email: William P. Martone,
Joanne Solek,

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