February 18, 2019
Workforce Shortage Threatens Mass. Human Service Nonprofits

February 28, 2017 — A "perfect economic storm" of increasing demand for human services, fewer workers, and low wages is threatening the viability of a growing number of Massachusetts nonprofits that provide human services to one in 10 state residents, according to a just completed study.

Nearly three-quarters of human service providers surveyed said they have had trouble filling job openings over the past three years, according to the Providers' Council, a statewide association of health and human service agencies that conducted the study.

Conditions are expected to worsen between now and 2024, with the human service industry looking to fill 24,000 to 25,000 new jobs to meet the needs of an aging population, just as the prime working age population in Massachusetts (people 20 to 64 years of age) is projected to decrease by nearly 40,000.

The Providers' Council, describing the worker shortage "A perfect economic storm of increasing demand for human services, a shrinking state workforce and low wages in the industry," published its findings in Who Will Care: The Workforce Crisis in Human Services, released today at a State House event.

Further aggravating the situation is competition for employees from state government and other sectors, which already siphon off workers from private-sector human service providers because they provide better pay and benefits for similar jobs.

Of the new jobs needed by 2025 to serve an aging population, many will be relatively lower-paid positions, such as direct support professionals, home health aides, and personal care aides, according to the report.

Providers' Council President and CEO Michael Weekes said, “Despite the heroic efforts of human service workers day in and day out, they cannot completely offset the impact of the workforce shortage. The crisis is beginning to create delays in care and disruptions to the all-important therapeutic relationship between professional staff and consumers.”

He added, "Prolonged vacancies are creating stress and burnout, leading to reduced productivity and more turnover. Desperate efforts by providers to recruit and retain employees are draining scarce resources that could otherwise go toward wages."

According to the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, the state's nonprofit trade association, about 6,300 Bay State nonprofits, excluding health care organizations, provided human services in 2013, comprising about 18.6% of the nonprofit sector, the second largest sub-sector, after youth and education.

Unlike other sectors, nonprofits that contract with the state to provide human services are constrained from raising pay to attract needed workers.

Weekes said Massachusetts human service nonprofits, which "do amazing work," have looked to merge as a way to address their inability to attract workers, but most often prospective merger partners reject the idea because they face the same issue that a merger won’t solve.

Among the study's key findings are the following:
  • Human service employers feel that their most significant competition comes from other human service employers: 84% report they compete with other human service employers, and 54% report that other human service providers are their greatest competition.

  • Inability of nonprofits to match state pay and benefits is a source of frustration. Some employers reported that their agencies serve as a workforce pipeline for future state employees, but "many human services providers question why state government contracts with human services do not offer reimbursement rates that mirror their own salary scales."

  • 59% of employers reported a lack of applicants to fill current job openings.

  • 71% of employers attributed the lack of applicants to low wages.

  • 81% of employers reported that applicants lack required skills, and 63% reported that applicants lack required education or credentials.
Weekes said solutions to the problems cited in the report include the state government using a forward-looking approach when setting salaries in negotiating contracts with private organizations. Salaries typically are based on what the government paid before, which doesn't address the historical disparity between state and private compensation levels.

Other actions that Weekes said would help include enrolling employees at private nonprofits in the state's Group Insurance Commission, which would lower their health care insurance costs, and enacting a college loan repayment program in order to attract young people into the human service field.

The Providers' Council conducted the study in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and the UMass Dartmouth’s Public Policy Center. The study was based on input from 63 human services organizations that employ 2 to 2,753 people, with a mean of 414 and a median of 222.

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