Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Direct Support Workforce Development

The College of Direct Support: A Tool for Training and Workforce Development


Susan O’Nell is Project Coordinator with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

The College of Direct Support is an online curriculum for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) and Frontline Supervisors (FLS) nationwide. It is providing nearly 65,000 learners with hundreds of thousands of hours of flexible, self-paced, multimedia training in areas critical to DSPs and FLS today. But being a tool for training is only one aspect of the power of the College of Direct Support (CDS).

Most people who provide services to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are familiar with training. Many states have a required number of hours and topics or even specified curriculum that they mandate providers to use. However, too few are using their training as a component of workforce development.

Workforce development is different than simply training people. It is a way of building and keeping a pool of qualified and committed workers. It is an effort to learn about the number of workers in a community and increase the number available to the industry. It is also an active process of improving the quality and preparation of those available workers. When workforce development efforts are successful, there is always a person with basic or even advanced skills waiting to fill an open position.

Direct support workers are hard to find. Industry leaders report feeling pressured to hire and retain workers who are lacking essential skills or aptitudes. A “warm-body” approach to hiring has developed that compromises the quality of services. It also perpetuates discouragement among high quality workers because under-qualified workers lack respect for and understanding of the work. It also can make the day-to-day realities of work far more difficult. Left unchecked, individual companies and the industry as a whole can feel the effects as qualified workers lose motivation. Or worse, they leave for jobs that provide more respect, prestige, and opportunities. This creates a downward spiral in the workforce that can be hard to escape.

Training is one aspect of workforce development. Providing training that is recognized outside of the individual employer or state in which the person is employed can be critical. This could mean that workers earn college credits for completing training. It could mean that it smoothly transfers into “credit for prior learning” from a college or university. It could mean that training is part of a meaningful credential. Meeting the educational component of an established apprenticeship is another option. These options make training more valuable to the employee. Because credit or credentials are portable, employees do not have to repeat training in areas where they already have competence. Training time can be spent on learning new skills and thus can lead to further opportunities.

Providing training that is credit-bearing or related to credential also increases the employee’s value to the community. The pool of workers is more prepared when expectations in education and training are clearly defined and meaningfully applied. Career paths are more easily defined and rewarded. There is a clear difference between entry-level and advanced skills. The skills and education have a clear connection to the work. This not only ensures individual workers are prepared; it also increases the positive visibility of the work as a whole. This in turn makes it easier to find new workers.

When building the CDS, we were careful to consider what needed to be in the content and the structure to make it helpful to people who needed good training materials for current employees. The 24/7/365 availability of the material and the self-paced nature made it a new way to deliver high-quality, consistent training to employees. However, other important components were included in the CDS content and programming structure as well, to make it helpful to larger efforts in developing the workforce as a whole.

In particular, the material is carefully crafted to ensure that it is in line with national efforts to create portable, meaningful training. CDS content is based on several nationally validated skills sets and an accepted code of ethics for DSPs. These skill sets and ethics are also the foundation of the educational components of the Apprenticeship Guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Labor PDF . They are a basis for the education, skills, and attitudes that are part of the credentialing efforts of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (see Assessment methods built into the CDS provide guidance to learners in developing professional portfolios that help establish their competence and ability to apply learning.

CDS content is available at the pre-service or entry level, as well as at specialized and advanced levels. Some of the current course offerings for DSPs are:

  • Safety at Home and in the Community
  • Maltreatment of Vulnerable Adults and Children
  • Supporting Healthy Lives
  • Individual Rights and Choice
  • Community Inclusion
  • Positive Behavior Support
  • Documentation
  • Cultural Competence
  • Personal Care
  • Medication Supports
  • Introduction to Developmental Disabilities
  • Direct Support Professionalism
  • Introduction to Medication Support
  • Teaching People with Developmental Disabilities
  • Person-Centered Planning and Supports
  • Introduction to Employment Supports
  • You’ve Got a Friend: Supporting Family Connections, Friends and the Pursuit of Happiness

Some of the current course offerings for supervisors and managers are:

  • Training and Orientation
  • Fueling High Performance
  • Recruitment and Selection
  • Developing an Intervention Plan

More courses bridging the move from DSP to FLS and creating effective supervisors are coming. They offer more experienced DSPs new and more challenging content, and also provide core content for advancement and career paths.

Finally, the programming behind the CDS content is helpful to workforce development. Training records are maintained and can be transferred or recalled when needed. The CDS comes with the capacity for building survey tools and reports. These let purchasers create and distribute online surveys to help them understand key aspects of workforce development. A pre-made set of surveys is included to help understand things like turnover and vacancy rates, worker and customer satisfaction, and worker commitment to the field or organization. These tools and the automatic reporting are extremely helpful in understanding if recruitment, training, and retention efforts are making a positive difference.

Taking on workforce issues as a whole can seem overwhelming at times. It requires collaboration and cooperation between entities that have often seen themselves as competitors. It requires a strong vision and long-term efforts. Fortunately, organizations have a tool that can help them get on board with some of the critical aspects of workforce development now. The College of Direct Support provides answers to a lot of internal training needs. And, by using the CDS effectively in their own way, employers are becoming part of a critical effort to improve the entire workforce.