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March 2010Vol. 11, No. 2Trends in the Child Welfare Workforce

By Nancy S. Dickinson, Project Director, National Child Welfare Workforce Institute

Concerns about the child welfare workforce revolve around the difficulties of recruiting and retaining qualified and committed staff and subsequent impact on organizational health and effectiveness. Additionally, there's mounting unease about widespread retirement among the most experienced child welfare leaders. While troubling, these trends have served as a wakeup call for action, characterized by the following developments. 

  • Increased visibility of child welfare workforce development initiatives. For decades, workforce development focused primarily on education and training through titles XX and IV-E and 426 funding. These approaches are necessary workforce development tactics, but they are not sufficient. Prompted by findings of the Child and Family Services Reviews, the Children's Bureau has endorsed a range of workforce development strategies through their funding of recruitment and retention projects beginning in 2003 and the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute in 2008.
  • Changing priorities of the contemporary workforce. The workforce is increasingly mobile, focused on work fulfillment and work/life balance, and motivated by professional aspirations rather than unquestioning organizational loyalty. "Emergent" child welfare workers are more likely to remain on the job when agencies recognize and facilitate good performance and support work/life balance. 
  • Increase in studies of retention and turnover. The focus of research on the correlates of retention and turnover has expanded from individual characteristics (human caring, self-efficacy, etc.) to organizational aspects (supervision, role clarity, creating a learning organization, etc.). The good news is that organizational factors can be changed in order to support effective workforce development. And we are beginning to test the effectiveness of interventions in stemming unwanted turnover.
  • Awareness of the link between workforce stability and client outcomes. Most concerning is research that shows a direct relationship between high rates of worker turnover and children experiencing significantly longer stays in foster care, repeat reports of neglect and abuse, and higher rates of foster care reentry. Testing interventions to increase retention will help to address these troubling outcomes. 
  • Contributions of recruitment and selection to workforce stability and performance. Recruiting and selecting the right people for the job reduces turnover and improves performance. For these reasons, agencies are increasingly implementing realistic recruitment strategies and competency-based selection approaches.
  •  Workforce development as an implementation tool. Testing and implementing evidence-informed practices rely on expert staff. The science of implementation suggests that staff be recruited, selected, and trained specifically for these new initiatives. And research shows that retention improves among staff who deliver evidence-informed practices, a trend that is consistent with what we know about emergent workers who value performance.

In sum, workforce trends have led to the development of key workforce initiatives to enhance organizational effectiveness and improve outcomes for children, youth, and families.

For information about the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, visit the website: