Magazine article Workforce Management

Health Agencies Grapple with Labor Shortage

Magazine article Workforce Management

Health Agencies Grapple with Labor Shortage

Article excerpt


An outbreak of food poisoning or West Nile virus draws attention to public health agencies. After the emergency passes, they tend to fade into the background as they conduct lowprofile work like improving maternal and infant care.

Such anonymity causes a problem when the organizations try to replace their nurses, epidemiologists and laboratory technicians. Those roles fail to spark the imagination of college students and other potential workers-even while demand for health services rises because of worries about pandemic viruses and bioterrorism.

"We are facing a crisis in our public health workforce," says Michelle Gourdine, former deputy secretary for public health services in Maryland.

Nearly half of the 500,000 people who work in public health nationwide will be eligible to retire over the next five years, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence in Washington. Health departments are reporting that 20 percent of their jobs are unfilled and the turnover rate is 14 percent.

Low salaries and competition from private-sector labs and hospitals deplete the potential labor pool. So does the lack of creative marketing by health agencies.

"It's exciting work; it's challenging," says Patrick Libbey, executive director of the National Association of County & City Health Officials. "It's often invisible, we hope, because it's often successful. We in public health don't know how to sell it."

This lack of interest endures despite the increased emphasis on the field following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "If you could spell epidemiologist, you could be one," Libbey says.

Some states have implemented programs to help increase the number of people who are entering the field, according to Jim Pearsol, chief program officer for public health performance at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. …

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