Economic Boom Leaves Youth Agency Jobs Empty

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By Martha Nichols

Boston—Last year Sargent House, a proposed 12-bed home for adolescent boys, looked like it had achieved youth work nirvana: It had a building and it won a government contract. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) was eager to fund a structured program for kids who didn't fit anywhere else in its system. If you build it - and raise the money for it - they will come, right?

Maybe the kids will, but Sargent House was missing a crucial piece: qualified staff.

The program was slated to open last September, in an attractive South End brownstone that had been vacant for two years, after having served as a halfway house for adult convicts and a shelter for homeless women. Rent was no problem: The house was owned by Massachusetts Half-Way Houses, which in 1999 merged with Community Resources for Justice (CRJ) - the group that runs Sargent House.

But Program Director J.C. Swenson wasn't even hired until last September, and it took another seven months for him to fill out Sargent House's staff. The facility finally opened in March of this year, with an annual budget of $682,000 to temporarily house boys removed from their homes for alleged abuse and neglect. But last month there were only six kids in residence. Since last October, three line workers and three shift supervisors have left. Sargent house typically operates with two of its 13 positions vacant.

Shortages of qualified youth workers are nothing new, especially at residential programs with tight budgets. Yet the boom economy of the late 1990s turned hiring and retaining good workers into a Herculean challenge. Gone are the '60s and '70s, when low-paid community work appealed to the social conscience of many college graduates. At the least, the baby boom swelled their ranks.

Now the U.S. Department of Labor predicts the number of available workers between 25 and 40 will drop 12 percent by 2005. Given the financial realities of college loans or high rents in Boston and elsewhere, it's little wonder that new grads aren't flocking to jobs that pay $10 or less an hour.

"It's as bad as it's ever been or worse," says Floyd Alwon, director of the Child Welfare League of America's (CWLA) Walker Trieschman Center, based in Quincy, Mass. "Working with vulnerable kids and their families is low-pay and low-status - even more so than being a nurse or a teacher, work that at least your Aunt Sally understands - and the people who were moving towards dot-coms aren't going to suddenly do something altruistic."

"Just getting them in for interviews is a struggle now," adds Bill Briand, director of CRJ's juvenile services and the former head of Mentor House, a locked residential facility in Somerville, Mass. Youth workers at Mentor House, for example, start at $22,500 a year.

And it takes a special kind of person to handle what Briand calls "the kids nobody wants to work with," such as juvenile offenders who have been arrested for armed robbery, drug distribution and sexual assault. "That's where the 22-5 [salary] doesn't match the job description," Briand says wryly. As a consequence, his job-recruitment budget is "sky high," because "you can't really gauge turnover and retention."

The problem is so widespread that in Washington, D.C., this month, the Academy for Educational Development (part of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research) and the National Institute on Out-of-School Time are hosting a forum, "National Youth Policy: The Realities of Staffing and Financing," to focus on strategies to overcome these hurdles. The struggle is not just in residential programs.

"With the growing attention to after-school and out-of-school time over the last several years, there has not been a comparable discussion about the quality of staff and the kind of financing these programs really need to be high quality," says Bonnie Politz, associate director at the Center for Youth Development. "It's not only going to cost money, it's going to cost significant money."

Many youth organizations have found ways to attract and keep the right workers. A sense of accomplishment is not a financial incentive like stock options; then again, almost nobody sticks with youth work for the money. "I have a college degree, and I make far less than any of my peers," says Chad Rubinson, assistant director at Sargent House. "I don't think I'm going to change the world. I'm more realistic than most, but I love working with kids."

James Christian, who took an entry-level job at Mentor House as a direct care worker and is now program director, says he stuck around because "the support of fellow staff and supervisory people was superb." He also cites Mentor's "commitment to the philosophy of the program, a commitment I bought into." Indeed, the retention strategies of successful youth organizations parallel those of for-profit companies: Provide the right training and supervision, grow managers from within, and build an organizational culture that reflects a larger vision.

 

Numbers Speak Louder Than Ideals

Directors at youth-serving organizations say the staffing situation has deteriorated over the past 15 years. Yet numbers on job vacancy and turnover rates for youth workers are hard to pin down. A workforce survey conducted last fall by the CWLA, the American Public Human Services Association, and the Alliance for Children and Families found a 10 percent vacancy rate for child-protective-service and other caseworker positions. Annual turnover rates for all staff at private agencies averaged 45 percent.

Although the survey didn't include direct-care youth workers in residential settings, the authors note that turnover rates for this group may be higher. An article in the November 2000 Children's Voice, the CWLA's magazine, cites a 12 percent vacancy rate for child and youth workers. As for turnover, the trends aren't good: According to a 1999 CWLA salary study, turnover rates for full-time staff at state agencies went from 6 percent in 1991 to 15 percent in 1999. At private voluntary agencies, turnover went from 16 percent in 1991 to more than 27 percent in 1999.

Such turnover is a demoralizing drain on those who remain, not to mention inefficient. "You spend all this time training somebody," says Sargent House's Swenson. "Then a month later they're gone." Swenson notes that he gets plenty of responses to want ads in the Boston Globe. Most of these applicants, however, are not freshly minted grads with psychology or criminology degrees. Few of the people he's hired have completed B.A.s; some don't have associate's degrees either (technically, a job requirement). Swenson says he's "working on experience" rather than credentials. He realizes, however, that past experience with troubled kids is no guarantee of good performance.

Some staffers need more than one job to make ends meet. Assistant Director Rubinson is thinking of taking a second job this summer; when he worked for the state DSS last year, he also had a job at The Gap and a liquor store. That means direct-care workers are often tired and less willing to enforce the rules, not providing the structure that kids in a group home need.

Scheduling staff for weekends and night shifts is a continual hassle. Once the house has 12 boys in residence, Swenson notes, there will be even less leeway if somebody doesn't show up for work. And "the little old man" hired as part-time cook didn't last; some of the boys frightened him. Other staffers have taken on kitchen duties along with everything else.

Sargent House is not alone in its troubles. The Boston public schools are scrambling for teachers. Ads in the Sunday Globe also list myriad openings for nurses and social service workers. They're competing for a shrinking pool: The 2000 census says New England's population of young adults - the 20- to 35-year-olds most likely to work in youth organizations - decreased by 676,000 in the 1990s.

Then there's the San Francisco Bay Area, where nonprofits have to compete with Silicon Valley salaries. According to a September 2000 survey of area agencies that serve homeless youth, executive directors of these organizations make as little as $40,000 a year (Northern California Family Center in Martinez). Larkin Street Youth Center in San Francisco listed the highest salary range for executive director at $82,000 to $112,000. Residential counselors at most of these agencies start in the low 20s.

Full-time direct-care positions usually include health insurance and other benefits. Such compensation helps sweeten the low-pay pill, but Briand at CRJ points out that "22-year-old kids don't look at it that way. Kids coming out of school want to know how much money they're taking home each week. Health insurance is not an issue, or 401Ks."

 

It's the Simple Things

If money doesn't draw people to youth work, what does? The child-welfare workforce survey last fall cited "non-competitive salaries as a critical problem" for both public and private agencies. Yet people keep applying for jobs as direct-care workers.

John Oliver, college relations manager of Eckerd Youth Alternatives, doesn't think the boom economy has affected his recruitment of entry-level counselors. "People who are driven to do this aren't looking for a job as a financial analyst anyway," he notes. Based in Clearwater, Fla., since 1968, Eckerd is best known for its wilderness camps for at-risk youths (18 camps in seven states). In this case, counselors not only have to like working with kids but also be "pretty nuts about the outdoors." The annual salary ($20,000 plus benefits and room and board) is not the hook.

"There's no way in the world we can talk anyone into doing this," Oliver says. "My biggest job when I meet students who seem interested is to try and talk them out of it. The ones who stay and say 'That's great!' are the right candidates."

Beyond attending job fairs, Eckerd focuses on targeting the right pockets of college students. The agency maintains contacts with professors in sociology, psychology and criminology to help steer likely grads Eckerd's way. Connections with college outdoors clubs are another recruitment tool. In the coming academic year, Eckerd plans to hire part-time student representatives at East Carolina University, Ohio University and other campuses. Oliver notes that because the wilderness camps aren't quick-fix programs (the average length of stay for kids is over a year), counselors get a chance to build relationships with their charges, which is one of the biggest draws.

This kind of commitment suggests that finding and retaining staff is linked with what makes a workplace livable, even lovable. Residential youth facilities, at the bare minimum, have to be clean and safe. That doesn't mean a locked facility like Mentor House, with its torn couches and tired rugs, has to be luxuriously appointed. But the best of such programs provide youth workers with appropriate supervision and chances to discuss their day-to-day experiences. Considering that workers are often called on to break up fights, enforce schedules and otherwise put their hearts and minds on the line, constructive feedback is essential for learning.

At Mentor House, 88 percent of staff have been there for over a year, 68 percent for over two years and 34 percent for five years. Workers meet with their supervisors once a week. More important, every supervisor began at Mentor as a direct-care worker. "We like to grow people," Briand says.

Take Christian, Mentor House's program director. Christian grew up in Dorchester's notorious Four Corners, witnessing the crack-cocaine scene there. He joined Mentor House in 1996  and within eight months was a supervisor. Promotions to senior supervisor and assistant director followed. Christian attributes the program's excellent retention rate to "an environment of team work," one in which people are given an opportunity to advance.

But he also emphasizes the "simple things." Good work is recognized at staff meetings and in memos. Mentor House periodically gives employees small gifts like pens, T-shirts, movie tickets, restaurant certificates and time off. "A simple thank-you goes a long way," Christian says. "We think we need to invest a lot and give these huge bonuses, but sometimes people just need to be thanked."

 

Hole in the Middle: Experienced Managers

The simple things come down to good management. As "First, Break All the Rules" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) puts it, when the Gallup organization conducted studies of workers in an array of businesses, researchers found that what mattered most to employees was their relationship with their immediate supervisors. Regardless of salary, this determined how long they stayed at a company and how productive they were. For-profit businesses may have different goals than social-service programs, but the importance of connecting with employees applies to both.

As in successful companies, well-run youth organizations promote people from within, providing continuity for new staff and those who remain. Yet here is where chronic low pay takes the greatest toll. Even dedicated youth workers in line for promotion leave if they can't make ends meet. That means a hole in the middle of the hierarchy that affects everyone. If an agency doesn't have qualified shift supervisors in place for a residential program, it's hard to train entry-level workers, let alone establish the kind of organizational culture that makes people want to work there.

"In recent years, people have often been promoted to the supervisory level long before they're ready," says Alwon of Walker Trieschman. He notes that many of those attending the center's courses for supervisors and other middle managers haven't even mastered direct service work, let alone the skills required for supervision. "It really makes you wonder about the stability of an organization," Alwon says, "because the middle managers are the culture bearers - those folks who help teach, usually informally, the way things are done."

That's like the "culture carriers" at the Brandon Residential Treatment Center in Natick, Mass., a $7 million program that employs about 150 full- and part-time staff. Program Director Joe Tondorf says about 50 of those staff are culture carriers - "a core group of staff we consider crucial."  None of the 20 or so residential supervisors was hired from outside, and their average length of stay is five years. "We emphasize people buying into being responsible and having increased responsibility," Tondorf says. "They in turn try and impart that information to younger staff. It's a culture within a culture."

Retaining promising supervisors or other managers is the challenge. Direct-care staff often go on to become probation officers or social workers, and not everyone is cut out to be an administrator. Still, the falloff has more to do with money and grueling schedules than with pursuing alternate careers in social services. At Sargent House, for example, Assistant Director Rubinson is applying to law schools. "Ideally, I'd love to stay in this field," he says. "But realistically, living in a major city with my bills, it might not be possible."

A start-up program like Sargent House is in the toughest position of all, because everyone is new. Mentor House has been around 18 years; its network of contacts, reputation in the field and experienced supervisors help draw new staff with the right qualifications. It's easier to take a risk on a new direct-care worker - like a college grad with no previous experience - when trained supervisors are in place. A new program like Sargent House has to take risks on both supervisors and entry-level staff. Director Swenson says, "You hire people you aren't as comfortable with, because they aren't proven commodities."

 

If You Build It, Make Them Believe It

Even the best agencies won't hold every Chad Rubinson or James Christian. Big salary increases in the youth work field are not in the offing. Living-wage campaigns pit unions against nonprofits that can't afford to pay more to their direct-care workers. Pragmatic directors hope to retain dedicated employees for a few years, not a lifetime career. Some directors use temporary workers to fill in shifts.

The trick is recruiting the right people for entry level positions, then figuring out how to get them to stick around. At the Brandon Residential Treatment Center, retaining minority staff is a priority because of the population it serves. Brandon hired a number of minority workers from Framingham State College; one result, Tondorf says: "The roots of our staff go back to one or two people" who were hired, then brought on others whom they knew, who in turn brought on others whom they knew.

 As for keeping staff, Tondorf says one key is that the supervisors "feel good about the opportunity to receive training from the agency, and to be placed in a position with some level of authority." Three years ago, Brandon's executive director and business manager began meeting with supervisors every other month. In these meetings, the administrators set goals and asked the supervisors for input. More important, the people at the top started sharing financial information like revenue and expenses.

"It makes them [supervisors] feel a lot more on the same page with the administration," Tondorf says. Each supervisor has a set of goals, which makes him or her eligible for a small bonus. The meetings have also given administrators a better understanding of the supervisors' daily frustrations.

Given the demanding nature of the work, recruitment and retention will always be a problem at youth-serving organizations. Beyond raising salaries when possible, it still comes down to meeting with college students, word of mouth, want ads, improved training and a well-communicated mission.

Some organizations hire recruiters, Alwon adds, "but that's the wrong emphasis. A better question is, 'What are you doing to make sure that your people are being nurtured and challenged?'"

 

 

 

Resources

J.C. Swenson, Program Director

Sargent House

577 Massachusetts Ave.

Boston MA 02118

(617) 437-1319

James Christian, Program Director

Mentor House

126 Cross St.

Somerville, MA 02143

(617) 623-7555

Bill Briand, Director of Juvenile Services

Community Resources for Justice

355 Boylston St.

Boston, MA 02116

(617) 482-2520

John Oliver, College Relations Manager

Eckerd Youth Alternatives

100 N. Starcrest Dr.

Clearwater, FL 33758-2990

(800) 895-1620

Joe Tondorf, Director of Programs

Brandon Residential Treatment Center

27 Winter St.

Natick, MA 01760

(508) 655-6400

Floyd Alwon, Director

Walker Trieschman Center

300 Congress St., Suite 305

Quincy, MA 02169

(617) 770-2176