For Public Health Agencies, Hiring in Competitive Field is Particularly Challenging

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Hiring managers say competition with the private sector and other factors make it difficult to recruit and retain staff. A new Center for State and Local Government Excellence report details ways that local governments have succeeded despite these challenges.

In the growing and increasingly competitive health care field, human resources staff in state and local governments are reporting more difficulty hiring for health and human services positions, according to a new report.  

But local agencies have benefited from adopting several strategies to counter hiring and retention difficulties, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found in the report

In its 2019 survey of human resources managers, SLGE found that nurses, physicians, and mental health counselors had become increasingly difficult jobs to fill. Salaries in the public health and human services fields have not traditionally kept up with the private sector, the report noted, offering another complication for local governments looking to recruit or retain workers.

Hiring for positions in rural areas can be particularly challenging. But introducing job candidates to coworkers and peers who can provide a support network and serve as a resource can be helpful during the recruitment process, said Donna Thoreson, a former social worker in California’s Contra Costa and Butte counties.

“If people know what they are getting into in terms of the agency and culture, it works out well. They can be excited about being in a smaller pond where they have a wider range of responsibilities,” said Thoreson in the report. “If new hires feel like they don’t fit or can’t ask anyone for advice, it sets up an extra barrier for success.”

Connections don’t always have to be coworkers, they could also be people in other fields with whom the employee would interact. For social workers, that could be people in the medical profession or law enforcement, Thoreson said.

Establishing an internship program is another way an agency can establish a pipeline for prospective employees. A program Thoreson oversaw in Contra Costa County provided a two-year academic stipend for interns with the requirement that they work for the county for at least two years after receiving their degree.

The United States is expected to add about 2.4 million new jobs in public and private health care from 2016 to 2016, with the county’s aging population driving the need for more health care services, the report said.

State agencies said nursing positions were the most difficult to hire for, with 44% calling the positions difficult to fill, the center’s 2019 workforce survey found. The percent of state and local government agencies that said it was difficult to hire mental health professionals and physicians both jumped respectively from 1% in 2015 to 11% and 9% in 2019.

Once an agency brings an employee on board, it’s equally important to keep that employee motivated and engaged.  One way the report suggests agencies can encourage and retain workers is by providing opportunities for professional development.  In Dayton, Ohio, city agencies are all required to identify key positions that may become vacant due to retirement in the next five years and to develop plans to replace those critical skills, the report said. This leads to a continuous push for professional development within city government, the report found.

Health and human services agencies may also find it beneficial to conduct surveys to find out how their employees feel about certain aspects of the workplace and to understand whether employees know about the full range of benefits available to them.

In Wisconsin, the Bureau of Working Families was surprised to discover that employees across the agency had different levels of understanding about the type of professional development resources available to them. The agency-wide survey enabled the bureau “to be more attentive to ensure that professional development is provided equitably across the organization,” the report said.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, the Division of Children, Youth, and Families surveyed employees over a three-year period to understand employee morale issues and to make workplace improvements. In response to the surveys, the agency established a committee that helps staff address concerns with the consistency and flexibility in agency staffing, the report said. The agency is also now looking at the type of resources that can be provided to staff who experience secondary trauma as a result of their work with children who are victims of trauma.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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