Facing the Work Force Crisis

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By Douglas W. Nelson

The challenge that faces America’s human services labor force is a simple one.

The work forces in child protection, child welfare, child care, youth services, employment counseling and juvenile justice are not large enough, stable enough, experienced enough, trained enough, paid enough, supervised enough, equipped enough or valued enough to do their jobs as well as they should, or as well as many of them wish they could.

And the most immediate question is not whether we can solve this problem, but why we persist – at such great cost to our society – in ignoring it.

Americans care about protecting vulnerable and abused kids. We want working families to have safe child care, and we believe in the importance of role models and guidance for at-risk adolescents. We want kids who get into trouble to have access to resources that will give them hope and opportunities for positive and productive lives.

Despite the sincerity of these goals and considerable public investment to achieve them, we have abundant evidence of the deeply disappointing results that we tolerate. Not a month goes by without some national outrage over children lost, abused or killed while within the protection of a child welfare system. Educators and advocates decry the shameful fraction of our young children who don’t receive the preschool care or developmental experiences they need to enter school ready to learn. And the results from residential treatment, juvenile probation and youth correctional programs suggest that these costly interventions may do as much harm as good in the lives of troubled kids.

This gulf between our aspirations and the actual achievements of our human service interventions has spawned abundant impulses for reform. Over the past decade, there have been calls for more prevention, decentralization, service integration, collaboration and better information systems. In contrast, we’ve given remarkably little attention to the preparation, competence, retention, morale and supervision of the people whose job performance ultimately determines if these systems will be successful.

There are many reasons for this inattention to the condition of the human services front line, but at least three issues stand out for examination.

First, stunningly little is known about these work forces. There is probably no other comparably sized sector of the American labor force about which there is so little data. We are largely uninformed about the people who do these jobs – their backgrounds, aspirations, ages, races, tenure, pay, career tracks, working conditions, job satisfaction, productivity and skill sets – or about why they exit the field in such large numbers. In light of that, the Casey Foundation intends to invest significantly in collecting, analyzing and disseminating this information as part of our Human Services Work Force Improvement Initiative.

A second contributor is the lack of recognition accorded to the promising examples of effective human resource innovation that have emerged. The Casey Foundation’s early research reveals that broad-banding, pay scales, performance, simplification of hiring procedures, workload management and upgraded supervision illustrate investments that can improve recruitment, retention, productivity and morale for front-line workers and the outcomes for the children, youth and families they work with.

As part of its initiative, the Casey Foundation expects to invest in identifying such promising policies and practices. We want to evaluate the benefits of these models, bring the most promising combination of approaches to a meaningful scale, and showcase the best reforms in ways that will encourage their replication.

Finally, real and lasting improvements in the human services front line will require the political will to demand change in the status quo and to pay for that change. But before that will happen, the human services front line must be more honestly described and more widely known. We must find ways of communicating to decision-makers and opinion leaders the waste in both tax dollars and human potential that will continue as long as we shortchange the human services professionals whom we’re asking to do immensely difficult and important work.

Casey intends to invest in this agenda for the next several years. But success will require the interest of more than a well-intended foundation. It will require broad partnerships with the research community, schools of social work, unions, advocates, professional associations, journalists and politicians. This is important work, not simply as a matter of fairness to well-intended workers, or for creating more efficient human service systems.

It is most important for what it could mean in the lives and futures of the kids and families for whom these systems exist in the first place.

Douglas W. Nelson is president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, www.aecf.org.