Human Services Work Force in ‘Critical Condition’

The United States could soon face a critical shortage of quality human services workers unless the government and the public dramatically increase resources, support and regard for them, according to a report and a survey from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Brookings Institution’s Center for Public Service (CPS).

“The question is not whether the work force is motivated … but whether it is healthy enough to do its job,” the survey says. “The human services work force is nearing ‘critical condition.’”

The Casey report and the Brookings survey, released in tandem last month, present one of the first and most comprehensive – albeit incomplete – pictures of the nation’s front-line social workers. The work force they examine includes up to 3 million people in youth services, child welfare, child care, juvenile justice, and employment and training.

“These five work forces that serve children have never been studied together this way,” said Barbara Schmitt, director of work force development at the Child Welfare League of America and a member of an advisory committee that helped to develop the report and survey. “Without a knowledge of who we’re talking about, it’s hard to determine what to do to help them improve.”

The studies provide hard numbers to back up what most industry leaders know from experience: Social and welfare workers are underpaid, overworked and frustrated. That gives those pushing for improvements to the human services fields something more than anecdotes to bolster their arguments.

“For the first time we have a framework for debate,” said Elizabeth J. Clark, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers.

The Casey report, “The Unsolved Challenge of System Reform: Condition of the Frontline Human Services Workforce,” provides information about the workers, the challenges they face and how they might be overcome, covering issues such as compensation, support and training. The report was directed by Janice Nitolli, a senior associate in Casey’s New York office.

The Brookings survey, authored by Paul C. Light and funded by Casey, provides a more detailed portrait, based on a lengthy random survey of 1,213 workers conducted last summer.

Crippling Conditions

The Casey report cites eight fundamental problems that “cripple all human service sectors”:

• Nonprofit, government and for-profit employers cannot find sufficient numbers of quality staffers.

• Many qualified staffers do not stay on the job long.

• Workers are paid less than those in other jobs at comparable levels.

• There is limited opportunity for professional growth and advancement.

• Workers receive poor supervision and little guidance or support.

• Rule-bound jobs leave little latitude for discretion, driving out the most entrepreneurial workers.

• The education and training of the workers do not match the role and demands required by the jobs.

• Workers receive no reward for skills or extra effort.

“These widespread problems not only undermine the effectiveness of system reform efforts, they reveal inefficient use of our public resources and present very real risks to the welfare of already vulnerable families and children,” the report says.

For instance, the report documents one of the central problems in the field: high turnover. For example, the average annual turnover rate among child welfare workers in private agencies and among child-care teachers is 40 percent.

What’s more, the Brookings survey says that not enough replacement workers are lining up to counter that turnover.
Recruitment and retention of talented workers is declining, according to interviews with college seniors last April.

“The next generation of human services workers is best characterized as uninterested, uninformed and apprehensive about jobs in the industry,” the survey says. Interviewed weeks before graduation, “relatively few” students said they had seriously considered careers covered in the study.

Among those who might be interested, many said they were not sure how to get jobs in the field, and most considered the hiring process slow and confusing.

The survey found interest in the field among students at the nation’s top 100 colleges and universities to be much lower than that of students at other schools. Nearly half the top-tier students who planned to enter the field said they would probably leave within two years.

“The human services work force is not winning its fair share of the nation’s most talented graduates,” the survey says.

The shortage of future workers coincides with increased job vacancies, as baby boomers retire in droves.

The survey concludes that the human services work force faces two futures: “One involves a slow but steady erosion of talent due to inaction and continued under-investment, even disinvestment in the industry’s human capital. Age, stress and burnout will continue to work their will on the current generation of workers, even as they discourage the next generation from entering the field. …

“The other future involves a recommitment to the work force, and to the children, youth and families it serves.”

That second scenario requires “long-overdue” investments to recruit and retain enough quality workers to respond to every call for help quickly enough to make a difference, the survey says.

It’s Not the Money

The Brookings survey focuses primarily on human services workers who serve low-income children, youth and families, which it says account for two-thirds of that work force.

Those workers are predominantly white (77 percent), female (82 percent) and at least 30 years old (76 percent). Fifty-two percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. About 55 percent have spent five years or less in their current positions, and 49 percent intend to stay for 10 years or longer.

Three-fourths of the workers are frustrated, half said they are unappreciated and 39 percent said they always have too much work.

Their primary motivation for seeking jobs in the human services sector is the opportunity to help children, youth and families, which 87 percent said was a “very important consideration” in accepting their current jobs. The opportunity to serve the community and to do challenging work also ranked high. Only 15 percent said salary was a very important consideration.

Salaries were generally higher in public agencies than in private agencies, the Casey report says. In child welfare, for instance, the report estimates a mean salary of $33,400 for child protective services workers in public agencies and $28,700 for those in the private sector.

The workers’ motivation and sense of mission will probably play key roles in making improvements to the field, said Casey’s Nitolli: “They feel like they are making a difference. When they complain, it’s about job resources, not the clients.”

Brookings used seven criteria to determine the overall health of the human service work force, saying that it should:

• Be motivated above all by the chance to make a difference for its communities and countries;

• Provide jobs that can be done;

• Be composed of high-performing workers;

• Be able to recruit and retain high-performing workers for the future;

• Be given the resources needed to succeed;

• Be rewarded for a job well-done; and

• Have the respect and the confidence of the people it serves.

Only the work force’s motivation was considered to be “healthy.” Three criteria were considered “at risk” and three “critical,” including staff recruitment and retention.

Despite the grim findings, the report reviews several promising approaches to addressing the problems. Human services systems that are improving share several characteristics, the report says: flexibility and freedom to recruit for needed skills; performance rewards; reasonable workloads; appropriate career paths; clear job expectations; training and development opportunities; the ability to change bad management, and adequate base compensation.

One persistent problem in compiling the studies illustrates the state of the field: a paucity of statistical information.

“It is clear human services workers are invisible from a data and management perspective,” the Casey report says. “Furthermore, it is apparent this invisibility has inhibited reform and sustained a dangerous status quo.”

Contact: The Annie E. Casey Foundation (410) 547-6600; report online at Brookings Institution Center for Public Service (202) 797-6090; survey online at


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