Limited staffing: ‘Help wanted’ ads for human services jobs going unfilled

  • Tenzin Thinley, a customer service employee of Stavros Independent Living in Amherst, talks to a client on the phone Thursday. The organization has four open positions in customer service it’s having trouble filling. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tenzin Thinley, a customer service employee of Stavros Independent Living, talks to a client on the phone Thursday, June 17, 2021. The organization has 4 positions open in customer service they are having trouble filling. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Sinnia Gonzalez,a book keeper, and Kevin Clark, a data entry employee of Stavros Independent Living, on Thursday, June 17, 2021. The organization has five positions open in book keeping they are having trouble filling. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tenzin Thinley, a customer service employee of Stavros Independent Living, talks to a client on the phone Thursday, June 17, 2021. The organization has 4 positions open in customer service they are having trouble filling. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cindy Suarez, left, and Sinnia Gonzalez are bookkeepers with Stavros, which has five positions open in bookkeeping it’s having trouble filling. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2021 7:16:29 PM

AMHERST — A year ago, advocacy and disability services organization Stavros could announce a job posting and receive interest from six to eight qualified people within days. Today, the organization has 14 open positions, some of which have been vacant for months.

“We’re just not able to find qualified applicants, or really find applicants who are willing to come on board for an organization that works so closely with individuals living with a disability,” said Jason Montgomery, director of development and communications at Stavros.

While Stavros has experienced an unusually steep drop-off in applicants during the pandemic, staffing shortages at other human service organizations — including those that provide services such as behavioral health, occupational therapy and other resources that assist people with physical disabilities, mental health disorders or substance use disorders — have been an issue for much longer, though the global health crisis has exacerbated the problem.

Amherst-based Stavros typically avoided this trend before the pandemic, which Montgomery thinks could be related to the organization’s benefits package that is designed to accommodate employees living with disabilities, who constitute over 60% of Stavros’ staff.

But working during the pandemic can be particularly dangerous for people living with disabilities, Montgomery said, some of whom face barriers to vaccination and returning to the so-called “new normal.”

Despite these shortages, Stavros has remained open throughout the pandemic. But some open positions, such as advocate/peer counselor and youth service advocate, are crucial to the organization’s services.

“These are the positions that we need people to come to and help individuals in this community … and provide the resources and support that they need to make determinations about their lives,” Montgomery said.

Northampton-based Clinical & Support Options has faced similar staffing shortages, though this difficulty stretches back over a longer period of time, said Melody Arsenault, vice president of human resources and compliance.

“We’ve been experiencing staffing shortages even before the pandemic started,” Aresenault said, “but certainly, there was an increase (with the issue), probably because of the pandemic.

“We weren’t sure what to make of it at first,” she said, “because we also had an increase in folks who were requesting services, so there were some difficulties for us.”

 CSO has increased its outreach in an attempt to attract more a pplicants, attending career fairs and keeping an eye on resumes posted to job boards that could potentially fit with the organization’s roles. But even the supply of recent graduates in relevant fields seems limited, Arsenault said.

The more dramatic drop-off in the long-running staffing shortage may be due to people taking a pause during the pandemic, Arsenault said. Recently, the number of applicants has started to increase again, although the pre-pandemic challenges of attracting qualified candidates remain.

A shortage ‘years in the creation’

Shortages in human service-related fields, such as behavioral health or occupational therapy, are apparent at the college and university level, said Wilmore Webley, an associate professor of microbiology and director of pre-med and pre-health advising at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Many students come to medical school interested in focuses such as emergency medicine, infectious disease or family medicine, Webley noted. But programs that would train people for human service fields attract far fewer students.

“Compared to occupational therapy or psychiatry, it’s night and day,” Webley said of the difference in interest for these specialties.

Webley isn’t sure why these programs tend to have lower enrollment, though he speculates that societal stigma surrounding mental health may dissuade students. This stigma can also discourage people from talking about mental health disorders, Webley said, and not as many students realize how high the demand is for behavioral health professionals.

Services for people with physical disabilities also face staffing shortages. And while Webley has seen some increase in conversations about mental health support, anecdotally, “occupational therapy is something that had kind of been left behind,” he said. Some people may also require mental health care and services for physical disabilities at the same time.

To curb this shortage of behavioral health and occupational therapists, Webley said universities need to emphasize the importance of these fields, both in medical school and at the undergraduate level.

“People don’t realize that occupational therapy practitioners are so vital to offering recovery-oriented systems to care for people,” Webley said, “and they’re given expertise in helping people pursue the type of daily routine that some of us take for granted.”

Social workers

Marianne Yoshioka, dean of the Smith College School for Social Work, said staffing shortages have also been prevalent among social workers.

The shortage “has been building,” Yoshioka said. “It isn’t something that just happening this year — it’s taken years in the creation.”

Part of this shortage comes from a “profound demand” for social workers, Yoshioka said, adding that these professionals provide a greater percentage of mental health care than psychologists or psychiatrists.

Human service organizations are “really feeling the squeeze of high demand,” Yoshioko said. “They’re looking for folks who are licensed, who are well-trained. And everyone needs those people, so it is very difficult.”

Despite this shortage, interest in social work programs is growing — the Smith School for Social Work recently recorded an increase of at least 30% in applications, Yoshioko said. But not all social workers go on to work for behavioral health organizations, Yoshioka noted, and some shortages for human service organizations are at the supervisor level. Low pay rates and high caseloads can also cause retention issues for some organizations.

“Social workers are generally undervalued for their expertise,” Yoshioka said, adding that their education provides “a very niche kind of perspective, and skill that still is not very highly paid.”

Raising wages at the organizational level often isn’t simple, Yoshioko said — many social worker positions in human service organizations are funded through federal and state legislation, which may place limits on wages at organizations that depend on this financing.

“This is the reality of trying to run a massive, beautiful, effective social service web of organizations,” Yoshioko said. “These are the realities where I wish that there was clarity among us that these are valuable services, and that these get funded first.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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