Opinion

Facing the Work Force Crisis

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.

Comments

Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.

EDITORIAL INDEPENDENCE

Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.

DONORS & DONOR TRANSPARENCY

We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)

Recent Comments

Archives

Categories

Search

Kennesaw State University Mountain Logo & Ceneter for Sustainable Journalism Logo
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape

Copyright © 2018 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Blvd. Suite 310, Kennesaw GA 30144

To Top