Impact Feature Issue on Direct Support Workforce Development

Addressing DSP Workforce Challenges: Strategies for Agencies

Finding, hiring, training, and retaining Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) are enormous challenges for agencies and the people they support. Thankfully, there are many research-based solutions available to address these challenges. People may be wondering, “Where should I start? Where do we go from here?” The answers depend on precisely what challenges need to be addressed.

Assess the Situation

The first step toward addressing workforce challenges is to assess the situation to understand the precise nature of the challenge. Is it a recruitment, retention or training issue – or all three? What’s the specific nature of the challenge? Assessing the situation may include examining turnover rates, current vacancy rates, and the proportion of new hires who left their jobs within six months of hiring for both DSPs and frontline supervisors. It may involve assessment of staff demographics, job satisfaction, job performance, consumer satisfaction, teamwork, training needs, reasons for leaving, and other factors. It is most helpful to review this information on a site-by-site basis. These assessments can clarify whether the initial understanding of the problem is accurate, and provide documentation useful later in determining the effectiveness of interventions.

Implement Interventions

The next step is to work with an intervention team that includes representatives from each of the affected stakeholder groups (DSPs, supervisors, administrators, people with disabilities, and families) to select an approach and develop a plan to address the top priority challenge. The team should identify the goal toward which it will work and select a strategy to achieve it. The plan should clearly identify: (1) the components of the strategy, (2) major barriers (the “yeah buts”) and how those will be addressed, (3) strategies for measuring progress, and (4) a timeframe for implementing and evaluating the intervention. Many different strategies could be selected to address challenges identified by the intervention team. The chart, “Challenges and Suggested Strategies to Overcome Them” (see opposite page), shows common recruitment, retention, and training challenges and lists interventions that can be used for each. The intervention team must become familiar with the strategies that are most likely to be helpful so that an informed decision can be made about which one(s) to implement.

The intervention strategies fall into four basic categories:

  • Finding and hiring employees.Includes recruitment interventions designed to increase the number of qualified people who apply for open positions, Realistic Job Preview interventions that help applicants make informed decisions about whether the organization and job are a good fit for their interests and needs, and selection interventions designed to choose from among the qualified applicants the ones whose skills and characteristics best match the position.
  • Welcoming and training employees.Includes orientation and socialization interventions that welcome new employees to the organization and help them understand “the way we do things around here,” and training interventions to build competencies needed to perform the job well.
  • Motivating and supporting employees.Includes supervision and management training interventions to build skills and improve practices, team-building interventions to prevent and reduce conflict and improve team functioning, recognition interventions to let employees know they are appreciated and to acknowledge accomplishments, and career development interventions to help employees move along a career path.
  • Changing systems.Includes networking interventions to build collaboration across organizations and groups of individuals or families struggling with similar challenges, policy interventions to reduce inequities and improve systemic support for broader initiatives (e.g., wage and benefit issues), and professional development interventions that build opportunities for DSPs nationwide to be recognized as professionals.

Plan for Success

Regardless of the intervention selected, there are several common keys to success. Having a local champion who values the intervention and has the skill and power within an organization to ensure that it is carried out is essential. It is also important to have an inclusive planning process so that individuals with disabilities, family members, DSPs and supervisors are participants in the change process. In addition, successful interventions are based on accurate assessments of the challenge and well thought-out solutions. Finally, successful interventions include an evaluation component that measures whether the intervention was implemented as designed, reviews progress on an ongoing basis so adjustments can be made as needed, and measures whether the intervention actually produced the final outcome that was desired.

Table 1. Challenges and Suggested Strategies to Overcome Them



  • Few qualified applicants
  • Trouble finding new DSPs
  • Expand recruitment sources
  • Use inside sources for recruitment
  • Implement recruitment bonuses
  • Advertise and implement hiring bonuses
  • Build regional recruitment consortia
  • Build recruitment networks with schools and other community organizations
  • Market the organization
  • Implement internship programs for students
  • Turnover rates are too high
  • New hires quit in the first 3-6 months
  • Use inside recruitment sources and bonuses
  • Give Realistic Job Previews
  • Improve selection practices
  • Conduct structured behavioral interviewing
  • Conduct effective orientation
  • Improve socialization practices
  • Establish peer mentoring programs
  • Improve training practices
  • New staff are unsure of their job roles and functions
  • Conduct effective orientation
  • Establish peer mentoring programs
  • Improve coworker support for new hires
  • Supervisors have difficulty finding time to coach and mentor new employees
  • Establish peer mentoring programs
  • Reduce turnover so there are fewer new employees to coach and mentor
  • Share training resources with other organizations so that the supervisor can focus on coaching and mentoring
  • Lack of training opportunities
  • Use Web-based training or distance learning
  • Develop a training calendar
  • Collaborate with other organizations to share training resources
  • Create a staff development culture instead of offering only regulatory-driven training opportunities
  • Poor performance
  • Training doesn't produce desired results
  • Establish competency-based training
  • Use skills mentors to coach staff as they learn new skills
  • Create a staff development culture instead of offering only regulatory-driven training opportunities
  • Supervisors report being overwhelmed, don't know how to do their job
  • Support and train supervisors
  • Mentor supervisors
  • Give Realistic Job Previews for supervisors
  • Morale problems
  • Implement participatory management
  • Offer recognition
  • Create mentoring and other career advancement opportunities
  • Reward long-term employees
  • Conflict between staff and supervisors or managers
  • Use teams/team-building
  • Provide networking opportunities
  • Support and train supervisors
  • Implement high performance supervision practices
  • Co-workers don't get along
  • Use teams/team building
  • Improve selection practices
  • Provide supervisor training
  • Train on conflict resolution
  • Long-term staff are dissatisfied
  • Enhance career development opportunities
  • Offer mentoring programs
  • Provide networking opportunities
  • Treat DSPs as professionals
  • Allow competent staff to test-out of required training
  • Offer advanced training
  • Recognize tenure, reward years of service
  • Implement equitable wage/benefit plans
  • Dissatisfied individuals with disabilities or family members
  • Conduct a job analysis
  • Implement competency-based training
  • Integrate code of ethics into socialization, orientation, and training practices
  • Inadequate wages or benefits
  • Investigate possible policy changes
  • Tie competency-based training to salary increases
  • Develop career paths
  • Professionalize direct support roles

Adapted with permission from Larson, S.A., Hewitt, A.S., & Anderson, L.L. (2005). Selecting and implementing strategies for change. In S.A. Larson & A.S. Hewitt (Eds.).Staff recruitment, retention and training strategies for community human services organizations,pp. 321-342. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Co.