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The 4 Main Barriers Human Services Face with Recruiting and Retaining Talent

BlogHuman Services

Workforce recruitment and retention in the Human Services industry is at a crisis level. Organizations are reporting staff vacancies of 20% and an astonishingly high average turnover rate of 51%. This leaves us all wondering – what’s stopping qualified talent from working (and staying) in human services?

Traditionally, Human Services organizations have relied on the strength and impact of the organization’s mission to recruit and retain employees. The common belief in the sector is that individuals who are aware of the organization’s mission and have a passion for the cause, issues, and communities they serve are more likely to remain with the organization. However, times have changed and an organization’s cause alone isn’t enough to attract and retain quality talent. In fact, many don’t realize the severity of this turnover issue and its impact on service quality and on the industry as a whole. A study by LifeWorks Solutions brings light to some shocking statistics:

Constant employee turnover and recruiting can be very costly for an organization, with the average cost of turnover for a Direct Support Professional ranging from $3,000-$5,000 per employee. There are also many other indirect costs associated with turnover, the most significant being the loss in continuity of care for individuals receiving services and an overall lowered quality of service.

Two of the largest underlying reasons for the current recruitment and retention crisis in the Human Services industry are the relatively low wages paid to frontline workers and the lack of competitive benefit plans, forcing some individuals to work multiple jobs, depend on public assistance to stay afloat, or leave the organization in search of a higher paying position. This can lead to significant overtime for the remaining employees within the organization, causing burnout and a tendency to also leave in search of a more stable schedule and better pay. This vicious turnover cycle is snowballing and further intensifying the staffing issue.

While there is a common notion that, no matter what they do, nonprofits will inevitably lose talented staff because of better benefits and opportunities offered in other sectors, there are also many other factors at play. Instead of simply looking to make more money, employees are facing a number of challenges in their day-to-day roles that, if not addressed, will eventually push them out of the sector, including:


Limited funding resources from government contracts, decreased donations, and fees for services already affect the amount of resources Human Services organizations can put towards retaining good employees, but it’s hardly a secret that the nonprofit sector has long underinvested in its most valuable asset—its people! There’s no single party to blame for the chronic underinvestment in Human Services talent but it can, in part, be attributed to a misaligned supply and demand relationship between organizations and their funders. As Fund the People’s Rusty Stahl explains:

“Funders rarely craft their funding to intentionally invest in the recruitment, retention, compensation, development, or retirement of a grantee’s people. In fact, the signals grantmakers send often encourage nonprofits to de-emphasize staff development and stress programs and projects instead. With most nonprofits trained not to ask for investments in talent, the demand is kept artificially low. This keeps talent issues off most funders’ radar, starting the cycle all over.”

Yet simply viewing talent underinvestment as a risk is not enough. This year more than ever, Human Services agencies must put strategies, systems, and processes in place that make resources available for the attraction, development, enablement and retention of their employees.


Because of increasing turnover rates, Human Services employees are consistently being asked to work overtime, creating workload burdens and emotional stress that can be hard to handle for many (not to mention driving up the overtime costs for organizations). Due to the nature of the work they’re doing, many employees interact with clients in ways that are emotionally demanding and must respond daily to distressing social conditions. According to a recent study from Opportunity Knocks, as many as 34% of nonprofit employees feel burnt out or overworked, with another 24% at risk of burnout.

Studies of low retention among employees in the Human Services sector suggest that the main reason why people leave the industry isn’t because they don’t love what they’re doing, but because they’re left feeling tired, emotionally drained, and “used up” at the end of the day.


A greater demand for accountability from government and donor funding is also making it increasingly difficult for Human Services organizations to retain employees and utilize them to their full potential. Although many employees are already overburdened with responsibilities when it comes to delivering services and programs directly to clients, the increased need to document how every minute and dollar is spent diverts their time and attention away from assisting the clients and communities they are passionate about.

Instead of spending time providing services, they must now spend a large portion of their time writing up reports and manually inputting data into their systems. Don’t get us wrong – reporting back to funders on how their money is being spent is incredibly important, but having inefficient or non-integrated systems means that this information has to be manually entered multiple times instead of only once, which is not only time-consuming, but incredibly frustrating for many Direct Support Workers.


It’s commonly understood that the prospects for internal promotion are more limited in the Human Services sector compared to the private sector. Very few organizations have an influx of opportunities for staff to advance in terms of job duties and wage levels, which has led to the frequent description of these positions as “dead-end” jobs. Often, talented individuals are forced to job-hop from one organization to another in order to grow in status or compensation.

Alongside this, investment in employee career development and training has been shown to play an important role in satisfaction and feelings of worth within the organization. But while the importance of professional development is widely understood in the nonprofit sector, budget constraints often mean that financial resources for these types of things are limited.

All in all, employee turnover is at an all time high within the Human Services sector. Reducing employee turnover, while simultaneously increasing the recruitment of high-quality talent, should be a top priority for every organization. While a small amount of turnover each year is acceptable and even healthy for an organization, if you’re seeing a 20% turnover rate or more year after year, your organization is in dire need of change.

Want to ensure you’re managing the people on your team in the most effective way possible? Download our Effortless Employee Management eBook today and we’ll show you how you can become a Management Magician within your organization.

Interested in seeing how our solution can support your employee management intitatives? Check out a recorded demo of our Workforce Management solution or view the product page for more info.


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