Frontline Initiative

Rethinking Staff Recruitment and Retention

Recruiting and retaining experienced and qualified direct care personnel in community programs for people with developmental disabilities is an administrator’s dream that never seems to come true. The main problem, of course, for many programs is low pay for direct support staff – although other factors contribute, such as lack of program and support resources, benefits, facilities, difficulty of the populations served, lack of opportunity for advancement, and burnout. Even if pay weren’t an issue, why would qualified, well-trained, experienced staff work for a community program if they could work for the school district or state or county programs where, in general, benefits, facilities, support and opportunity for advancement are better?

 The Nevada Association for the Handicapped (NAH), Nevada’s largest community program for persons with disabilities, employs more than one hundred full-time staff. NAH has always understood the importance of good, stable direct support staff. For several years, NAH has implemented an aggressive in-service training program and has reimbursed staff for program-related training to find only too often that as soon as staff have met minimum training and experience qualifications for a state or school district position, they left – taking with them a significant NAH investment. In addition, losing long-term staff and training replacement staff is disruptive to both the program and consumers.

In 1995, the NAH management team and board of directors decided to try a new approach to recruiting and training DSWs:

  • The first step was to develop a uniform staff classification and grade schedule based on education, training, and experience. NAH ensured that the top grade was competitive with state and school distract salaries. Highly trained and experienced personnel are hired into the higher grades; lesser qualified individuals, through training and experience, can be promoted to a higher grade.
  • Reimbursement for training expenses was increased up to $100 per year, and training offered by NAH was scheduled after working hours and made strictly voluntary, with the understanding that the training would count toward promotion to a higher grade.
  • To promote longevity and reduce absenteeism, NAH developed a bonus system that includes an extra four hours of annual time off for every year of service and a cash bonus for anyone who doesn’t use any sick time within a six-month period.
  • NAH also introduced a cross-program training and assignment system which allows staff to be assigned voluntarily to different programs depending on need and opportunity. For example, staff may switch from a day program to a community supported employment program. The cross-program assignment not only allows staffing patterns to be assigned by program need but, more importantly, provides a vehicle for advancement, flexibility, and a chance to try new things in a different work environment.

The personnel policy changes NAH has initiated are expensive. But so is staff turnover, absenteeism, and lack of staff motivation. Furthermore, NAH believes a highly qualified staff with a sense of opportunity for advancement in both pay and professionalism will pay for itself with greater consumer satisfaction, community support, and staff involvement in fund-raising and special events. NAH’s approach to personnel management clearly can’t eliminate all the staff problems encountered by community-based programs that serve people with developmental disabilities. And, while it’s still too soon to say definitely that the NAH initiative has improved staff morale and commitment, reduced turnover and burnout, and increased staff involvement and motivation, NAH is convinced it’s a necessary investment.