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


Empty Chairs

As a national workforce shortage strikes child welfare, CWLA responds

By Floyd J. Alwon and Andrew L. Reitz The headlines read:
Child Welfare Agency Unable to Staff Programs
Day Care Center Closing Highlights Staff Shortage
Tight Labor Market Adds to Instability of Stock Markets
Nursing Homes Close Due to Unsafe Staff Ratios
Anyone who reads the newspapers knows a workforce crisis is tearing through all segments of the U.S. economy. But those in the child welfare field don't need the papers to tell them the crisis is real and widespread, or to understand the problems it is causing. They know firsthand what it means to have a 12% vacancy rate for child and youth workers; to ask people to do demanding, difficult work for less money than a convenience store cashier makes; to require overtime from overworked, exhausted employees; to have only two people to interview for seven openings; and to conduct exit interviews with child protection workers who are burned out and just can't do it anymore.

All this occurs at the same time the needs of children and families and demands from funding sources require child welfare agencies to do more and better work with ever-shrinking resources.

The frustrations are real, and they are felt at all levels of child welfare agencies, from frontline workers all the way up to CEOs. Commenting on the potential for danger that child welfare workers face, one supervisor recently said, "Every day, we send caseworkers out by themselves, dealing with a potentially explosive issue [the possible removal of a child], into the same homes a police officer wouldn't enter without backup."

Staff turnover is a problem for any employer. Federal labor statistics show the average employee works nine different jobs by the time he or she is 32. But turnover in the child welfare field may be nearing crisis proportions. According to the CWLA 1999 Salary Study, staff turnover rates in state public agencies increased from 6% of full-time employees in 1991 to 15% in 1999. In local public agencies, the turnover rate doubled from 5% in 1991 to 10% in 1995, where it seems to be holding steady. The problem appears most acute, however, in private voluntary agencies, which started with a 16% turnover rate in 1991 and saw that skyrocket to more than 27% in 1999.

Every indication is the pool of available workers is shrinking and that the problem will only worsen. The U.S. Labor Department estimates the number of candidates ages 25 to 40 will decline 12% by 2005. The baby boomer generation accounts for 47% of the current workforce, and they are fast-approaching retirement age.

For child welfare, this means case overload, workers stretched beyond the limit, and frustration, fear, and burnout. Says one caseworker, "Every night I pray something horrible doesn't happen to one of the kids on my caseload."

CWLA's Response

In December 1999, CWLA hosted a national symposium, Confronting the Workforce Crisis. Professionals from public and private child welfare agencies nationwide met in Washington, DC, to examine the many facets of the workforce crisis and its impact on child- and family-serving agencies, share promising staff recruitment and retention strategies, and plan a comprehensive course of action to address the range of workforce issues.

From that gathering, a National Advisory Committee on the Workforce Crisis in Child Welfare was formed; it has become the centerpiece of CWLA's efforts to address the workforce crisis. Charged with developing and implementing strategies for recruitment, retention, public policy, and public education, this group has formed subcommittees in each of these four areas.

The subcommittees on recruitment and retention are focusing on identifying and disseminating best practices in these areas in both the child welfare and business arenas. The public policy subcommittee is analyzing federal and state policies relevant to workforce issues, pinpointing promising regulatory and legislative initiatives, advocating for adequate fiscal resources to enhance salaries and training programs for child welfare staff, and briefing state and federal legislators about the field's workforce needs and potential remedies. Finally, the public education subcommittee is developing a national media campaign to promote the value and rewards of work in the child welfare field.

Finding the Best and Keeping Them

The recruitment and retention subcommittees have begun searching for best practices in these areas, examining major writings on human resources and organizational development from professional journals, government publications, conference and other public presentations, and the Internet. The initial emphasis has been on retention issues for several reasons.

No amount of recruitment success will solve the field's workforce issues if agencies can't retain the workers they hire. Further, many of the factors that impact an agency's ability to retain employees are related to the agency's organizational climate and the way it operates, issues the agency can target directly. This contrasts somewhat with recruitment issues, which can be influenced by many economic factors outside the agency's control. Finally, agencies that create positive, productive working environments develop reputations that greatly enhance their ability to recruit new employees.

Although the subcommittees' search for best practices is far from complete, five interrelated themes consistently appear in the literature as characteristic of organizations that have been successful in recruiting and retaining a skilled, motivated workforce:

Employees are connected and powerfully committed to the unifying mission of the organization. To retain employees over the long term, especially when the work is as demanding as it is in the field of child welfare, employers must capture the hearts of their staff so that they view their work as much more than just a job or a paycheck.

This means agencies have to attend to several matters:
  • Vision and mission statements must be compelling, focused, understandable, and directly linked to employees' work.

  • Organizations must consistently communicate the importance of the mission as a guide in directing day-to-day activities.

  • Policies and decisions must conform with the mission. Agencies can't just "talk the talk," they have to "walk the walk."

  • Agencies must celebrate performance that exemplifies the mission and actively engage employees at all levels in those celebrations. This area should be a strength for child welfare organizations, as their primary missions-assisting needy children and families-should be much easier to sell to employees than the missions of their corporate counterparts.
Open and honest communication takes place among all levels of the organization. When employees feel connected to an organization, they are more productive and less likely to leave for other jobs. The most obvious method to ensure such connection is open, honest two-way communication. This means agencies must communicate information to employees, as well as get information, ideas, and opinions from employees.

Methods to disseminate information might include extensive orientation and training programs, newsletters, open meetings, e-mails, bulletin boards, teleconferences, and topical forums. Getting information from employees requires agencies to commit to not just listening but also acting on employees' ideas and suggestions.

Listening well requires a commitment from top executives and can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including open-agenda meetings; informal talks, such as lunchtime discussions; surveys; and ongoing recognition of employee suggestions and ideas. It's hard to over-communicate with employees.

At all levels, the organization emphasizes relationships, partnerships, and teamwork. Employees come and go. Partners, on the other hand, tend to be much more connected to the organization and stay for the long term. The first steps in building partnerships, commitment to the mission and communication, we've already discussed. Other steps include systematically involving staff in agency decision-making; eliminating unnecessary layers of management and status barriers like preferred parking, time clocks, and special benefits; opening the agency's books and sharing fiscal information with staff; implementing pay-for-performance programs; doing direct training in teamwork and partnering skills, establishing multi-department problem-solving teams, and committing the agency to an inverted pyramid model, where managers serve frontline workers.

The agency places strong emphasis on learning, innovation, and development at both the individual and organizational levels. Not surprisingly, agencies that promote ongoing professional development and life-long learning tend to produce better results and retain a committed, innovative, highly skilled work force.

The most visible way to demonstrate an emphasis on learning is for agencies to commit both time and money to develop and implement comprehensive, high-quality training programs for staff at all levels. Learning organizations also encourage staff (and support their efforts financially) to extend their formal education through college and graduate-level courses and external workshops and training programs. As well, staff in learning organizations continuously train each other by sharing new information, concepts, and ideas.

The organization frees employees to make decisions and take action without numbing levels of policy, procedure, and bureaucracy. Nothing is more debilitating to employee morale than to be forced into ineffective actions, over and over again, simply because procedure requires it. This is particularly true when better options are clearly available. Employees who are trusted to act, on the other hand, become increasingly committed to the agency and its mission.

No organization, especially a child welfare agency, can operate without clear guidelines for certain areas of employee performance. The goal is to achieve a balance. Effective organizations constantly review policies and procedures to ensure they don't unnecessarily limit freedom of action and they do encourage challenges to the status quo and allow employees the freedom to fail, learn from their mistakes, and try again.

Missing the Obvious?

Readers may be asking an obvious question at this point: "What about pay?" None of these five themes relate directly to increased pay for agency workers. Clearly, money matters, but it's also clear that significant funding increases aren't likely in the near future. Although the Advisory Committee's public policy subcommittee will address the funding issues that relate to increased pay, the workforce crisis is too serious for us to wait for success in that arena. We need to act now.

Public awareness and perception of the scope and seriousness of the problem will be key, and that will be the responsibility of the public education subcommittee. Advisory Committee Co-chair Richard P. Dina, CEO of Family and Children's Association, Mineola, New York, emphasizes the stake the public has in recruiting and retaining a skilled child welfare workforce. "You wouldn't entrust your new BMW to a mechanic with no experience or training in the make or model," he says. "So, too, our kids. Their complicated, damaged lives need the best hearts and minds we can find so they have the best shot at being healed. They're too valuable to be entrusted to rookies; they need and deserve the finest pros we have. If they don't get it, we all pay down the road, because a kid's unsolved problems become entrenched adult problems, which are more difficult and costly to solve."

CWLA is working with its member agencies to identify and spread the word about promising, proven practices that exemplify these themes within child welfare agencies. Are you aware of an agency that has implemented such practices? Contact Floyd Alwon, Director, Walker Trieschman Center, in CWLA's North Atlantic Office, 300 Congress Street, Suite 305, Quincy, MA 02169, or via email at

Floyd J. Alwon, Ed.D., is director of, and Andrew L. Reitz, Ph.D., senior consultant for, CWLA's Walker Trieschman Center, Quincy, Massachusetts. Steve Boehm is editor of Children's Voice. Through regional training academies, national and regional conferences, professional development institutes, and consultation and technical assistance, the Walker Trieschman Center works to enhance the professional development of practitioners who care for, treat, and educate vulnerable children, youth, and their families. This article is a result of the activities of the Retention Subcommittee of the National Advisory Committee on the Workforce Crisis.

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