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An Administrator, many years on
Earl Stuck reflects on some of the
roads our profession has travelled since the Sixties
My career as a child care worker began
in 1966. I was hired as a summer relief worker at a residential facility
at 1 p.m. and began my first shift at 3 p.m. the same day. Fifty dollars
per week plus room and board seemed like a good deal at the time.
Although I had not realised that ‘room and board’ meant eating all of my
meals on duty and being on call 24 hours a day, I do not think it would
have mattered. I could hardly believe that such a job existed, where I
could play basketball, build tree huts and make up jokes at which the
children would actually laugh. I was told that the children were
“disturbed”, which apparently meant they lost control and would need to
be frequently restrained, yet they did not seem much different from many
of the children with whom I had grown up.
My pre-employment experience was limited to playing sports and still
being pretty much a kid myself. On-the-job training was limited. I
learned when the children were supposed to eat and go to bed, and to
keep a close eye on their parents when they came to visit. My friends —
and especially my girlfriend at the time — thought this job was a
tremendous idea — a little like a local Peace Corps. I believed then
that I could really make a difference. Even I knew that I was naive, but
surely enthusiasm and hard work would make up for inexperience and my
utter lack of training.
Twenty-six years later, I no longer
work shifts and it has been a long time since I built my last tree
house. The experiences of that summer, however, and those of my
succeeding years as a child care worker, shaped my life, both
professionally and personally. Today, the dilemma we face throughout all
of child welfare has remained much the same since 1966.
Child care — a real job?
There are enthusiastic, excited and interesting people out there.
Sometimes we can attract them into the field, sometimes we cannot. Some
of those whom we hire remain, yet many seem to try it out and then move
on to “real” jobs elsewhere. The quality of staff recruitment and
retention is widely agreed to be a central factor in both child
welfare’s successes and failures. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the heightened
social consciousness of the “Great Society” spawned a great many
programmes for children and families. A profession that revolved around
helping people was a fashionable, respectable one. Despite great demand
for staff, we remember a time when there were ample applicants for even
the most poorly paid entry-level positions. Baby-boomers with college
degrees and high ideals were anxious to do their stint. Even if their
educational background was in political science or English literature,
they thought that on-the-job experience would surely fill in the gaps.
Fast food or computers
Starting earlier, but becoming fully apparent by the early 1 980s, a
shift occurred. Some staff, having done their time in human services,
moved into the corporate world. The economic boom lowered unemployment
nearly everywhere. The cost of education grew rapidly. Those with
degrees, who faced the prospect of loan repayment and high costs of
living, increasingly chose careers with greater potential for economic
growth and security. Child welfare agencies were often not being
selected by those who had arguably better offers in the areas of fast
food and computers. At the same time, jobs in human services were
becoming increasingly demanding. Professional and even personal risks
increased in an era of increasing poverty, violence and drugs. In many
places a more culturally and ethnically diverse clientele entered the
system. Agencies who had employed predominately white, young people from
middleclass backgrounds discovered that good intentions did not always
result in cultural responsiveness. Staff questioned their own relevance.
Litigation became a growing concern. It seemed that one could be sued
for anything. Child and youth care workers, foster parents, teachers and
others felt increasingly exposed. Nearly everyone could recount highly
publicised accounts of child abuse allegedly perpetrated by the same
workers who were charged with helping children. It was difficult for
even the most caring administrators and supervisors not to sometimes
fall into cynicism and suspicion.
The 1990s seem to present a mixed bag. The recession has resulted in
difficult times for families and children. It has, however, actually
improved prospects in recruitment and retention of staff. Higher
unemployment has increased the pool of those who would consider jobs in
human services. Employees of human service agencies are tending to stay
longer, in part due to fewer and less attractive options elsewhere.
Unfortunately, at the same time funding has been reduced for social
programs and the needs and numbers of the client population have
dramatically increased. These factors combine to require workers to do
more with less — a hard sell to those who already realise the enormous
challenge of this job.
When it comes to the staff of children’s organisations, the
questions we struggle with now are how to:
Attract individuals to the field with
the diverse background, training and skills necessary to meet today’s
Enhance their skills throughout their
period of employment; and
Retain those who have the most to
offer the children and families in positions where they can do the
Effective staff recruitment and
retention: remembering why we’re here
The story we have told of the last quarter century is only useful if
it makes us examine how we could have done it differently. There is no
experience like personal experience. Remembering this experience is the
key to finding, developing and keeping quality staff in our agencies.
All who are charged with these responsibilities should ask themselves
three fundamental questions:
Why did I get into this line of work?
What, if anything, made me hesitant about the
choice; what made me think twice?
What would cause me to get out of the field? At
the same time, it is a good idea to ask these questions of your staff,
prospective applicants and departing staff at exit interviews. The
answers might be surprising, but they hold the key to attracting and
keeping quality staff. Following are examples of answers to these very
important questions, summarised feedback from the experiences of many.
Why get into this line of work?
Invariably, three very simple answers head the list:
Because I enjoy kids;
Because I want to make a difference;
Because of the influence that another person, or
persons — role models —have had on me.
Surprisingly money is rarely mentioned
as a reason for entering the field. The importance of financial rewards
in both recruitment and retention will be covered later.
What made me hesitant to apply for
my first job in the field?
Most frequent answers include:
Image — Media and public perception
that workers are sometimes child abusers in disguise. Who wants a job
that you would have difficulty describing to your grandmother? If it
is an entry level position, who wants to do what the general public
perceives to be babysitting? Prevailing attitudes toward gender roles
leaves many males seeing nurturing roles as “women’s work”. Conversely
women often do not see themselves as effective with acting out,
sometimes violent children.
Job difficulty—“The job is too hard”
— “I don’t know if I can do it.” Many people view line-work as a
teacher or child and youth care worker as a solitary profession — “Me
against the world". The fear of exposure, and ultimately, of failure
is a major cause of hesitancy.
Career change — “It’s too late to
change my career direction.” Experience and training in other areas,
education bills, the more obvious advancement possibilities elsewhere,
all combine to make many hesitant.
Working conditions —Shift work,
evenings and weekends are usually not attractive. A physically
unattractive work environment makes a poor first impression. The “war
stories” about on-the-job dangers are disconcerting, significant and
of very real concern.
Cultural sensitivity — Especially in
agencies where there is little evidence of staff diversity, many
prospective applicants feel that they will not fit in. They may also
feel their perceptions of the clients may differ from those of other
staff and administration, and consequently receive limited
The last question, and the one which is
often the most difficult to answer is:
What would cause me to leave?
Despite the difficulties many have in answering this question, the
answers tend to be relatively few and simple. Generally, one would leave
Any of the answers given to the first
question, “Why did I get into the work?” were found not to be true.
That is, if one’s job experience has left him or her feeling that he
or she did not like kids, or if the conditions made it difficult to
enjoy them. If one finds that, no matter what he or she tries to do,
he or she does not appear to “make a difference.” Finally, if new role
models — negative influences — replace the original ones and other
positive models do not exist in the workplace.
They experience a lack of support.
Once someone enters the field, the hypothetical concerns mentioned
earlier concerning being “out there alone” can become very real. Lack
of support from peers, supervisors and administrators all play a part.
Working conditions are poor. Once
again, while fears about working conditions make many hesitant, the
reality of poor or dangerous working conditions is a major
factor that drives employees away.
They don’t receive adequate
compensation. Salary and other compensations rarely appear in answers
to the first two questions. They are, however, nearly always noted as
reasons for leaving. Researchers have found that “money is a
dissatisfier, but not necessarily a satisfier” (Leonard, Margolis and
This quote is illustrative of the fact
that money has two kinds of value — face value and symbolic value. Its
face value is obvious. Staff will leave if they are not compensated to
adequately support themselves and their families. The importance of
money increases over time, even when it was not a factor in the person s
original decision to accept the position. Also, money is valued as a
symbol of appreciation, of how the agency values the worker. Money’s
symbolic value becomes greater when the agency does not have other ways
to recognise a staff member’s importance. If money is the only yard
stick by which an agency expresses staff value, the lack of it is a
Job satisfaction is rarely a simple
salary issue. Other issues such as prospects of promotion, the nature
and amount of supervision, the quality of peer interaction, job content
and autonomy, the level of responsibility and role clarity are all
critical contributors to the length of a person’s employment (Porter and
Steers, 1973). Curiously, Fleischer (1985) noted “that while salary
continues to be a concern among child care workers, satisfaction with
salary is actually higher among those who leave than among those who
stay”, suggesting that the basic reasons for leaving extend well beyond
In 1990, the state of Florida
contracted with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) to evaluate
staff retention issues among state social service workers. A part of the
study focused on job satisfaction factors from two points of view —
staff perception of what is important, and staff perception of agency
performance. Tables 1 and 2 summarise the results. Of special importance
to the final recommendations, were those areas rated high in importance
and at the same time low in agency performance. Several are noteworthy:
Realistic workload — first in
importance, second to last in agency performance
Financial compensation —second in
importance, fifth from last in agency performance
Legal liability protection
—third and third respectively
Sufficient resources — sixth and
Participation in decision-making —
ninth and ninth respectively
—eleventh and tenth respectively
These factors indicate places where
important job satisfiers were seen as largely neglected by the agency.
Each relates strongly to the answers to the initial questions posed in
this article. Each indicates areas where improvement in agency
performance would likely result in significant improvement in its
Translate experience into action
It is now time to return to the first question asked at the
beginning of this article: Why did get into this line of work in the
first place? The answers may serve as an outline for
the creation of attractive work environments for staff, and identify
those areas which provide the best opportunity to retain those who can
serve children and families most effectively.
TABLE 1: Staff Perception of Importance
(ranked in order from most to least important)
- Realistic Work Load
- Financial Compensation
- Legal Liability Protection
- Time Off/Leave
- Sense of Accomplishment
- Sufficient Resources
- Challenging/Interesting Work
- Participation in Decision Making
- Cooperative Work Environment
- Opportunity to Use Skills and Abilities
- Promotional Opportunity
- Informed of Agency Policy! Procedures
- Opportunity for Personal Growth
- Encouraging/Empowering Supervisor
- Competent Technical Support
- Personal Safety
- Medical/Dental Care
- Encouraged to Initiate/Problem Solve
- Flexible Scheduling
- Experience Success With Clients
- Staff/Development Training
- Clarity of Agency Mission/ Purpose
- Structured Peer Support
- Mental Health Care
- Physical Work Environment
- Orientation Training
- Culturally Responsive Work Environment
- Available Day Care
Because I enjoy kids
Even though the primary attraction for many is the joy of spending
time with children, this is often soured during one’s initial
experience. This is a real tragedy. This work is not all fun and games
—work with troubled children can be discouraging — but perhaps our own
attitudes contribute to a greater degree than we think. Many
administrators have said that they always give the bad news about the
job first, to ensure that no one is hired without a keen awareness of
the challenges involved.
Being realistic with applicants and new
staff is necessary but our efforts to portray the downside can often be
unbalanced and biased. For example, several years ago I reviewed a
sample of child care worker employee files. I looked for both reprimand
and congratulatory letters. To my surprise, and considerable
embarrassment, I found that these letters nearly always dwelt on such
subjects as inappropriate client management, punctuality and related
negative performance issues. Staff were reprimanded for making mistakes
and congratulated when they did not make them. Rarely was there a letter
applauding relationship building or teamwork, nor were people
reprimanded for not being inventive enough in their activity planning. I
found that my words during interviews were saying, “I want well-rounded,
creative people”, while the evidence in personnel files indicated that I
wanted people who risked little and made few mistakes. It is very
difficult to enjoy children when the real basis for performance
appraisal is risk management.
The tendency only to reward staff
members who avoid trouble can be very dangerous for an organisation.
Staff need the opportunity to risk, to move out of the narrow, sometimes
repressive, roles which we create for them. The same child who, out of
boredom, antagonises peers and adults, can be a joy to be around if we
take a risk and vary the group size, plan an activity just for fun, or
alter a boring routine. If we really want our staff to be creative we
must find ways to encourage some of the same traits we often try to
eliminate. Granted, mistakes will be made, peace and order may suffer
from time to time, but the result will more likely be that staff feels
empowered to enjoy, and not simply control the kids.
Job advertisements, public relations,
and public education material should do a much better job of explaining
the rewards of the work and the strengths of the clients. Playing up
only the desperate need of the clients contributes to a slanted,
negative image which sets the stage wrongly. If an agency is unable to
promote and foster positive client-staff relationships, it will neither
attract nor retain the staff it wants.
Because I want to make a difference
Staff will invest energies if they feel their skills will be used
and the net result will be a positive impact on the clients. Studies
have consistently shown that a sense of accomplishment is a major reason
why some stay in the field, while the lack of meaning and positive
outcome stemming from one’s efforts is a source of great dissatisfaction
to those who leave (Leonard, Margolis and Keating, 1981). How can
agencies enhance a worker’s chances to make a difference:
1) They should have higher expectations
of all staff
Often administrators and supervisors who have experienced a decline in
the numbers and qualifications of those who apply for jobs, feel they
cannot expect too much of the employees they hire. Staff roles and
assignments should not be limited by the job market, but rather
determined by the needs of the clients. Few people ever come fully
prepared for a job. The challenge of growing into a job is one of the
cornerstones of developing a sense of accomplishment.
2) Agencies should establish strong
pre-service training and new staff orientation programs.
Higher expectations require agencies to help staff members acquire the
skills necessary to meet these requirements. Failure to orient and train
early on is a major cause of high staff turnover. Preservice training
should be designed to give all staff a fundamental understanding of the
job and the basic skills necessary to function successfully. New staff
orientation should likewise acquaint workers with the agency, its
mission, clients and their roles within it.
3) Agencies also should develop
in-service training programs that provide staff with a rounded
Employees learn much about an agency’s real agenda from the subjects
covered in its in-service programs. Agendas that deal solely with the
issue of the day, responding only to crises, give a clear message that
managing risk is a more valuable skill than other aspects of care.
In-service training can also be used to help experienced staff grow into
more advanced specialties and career tracks. Potential for growth and
advancement is a consistent feature of effective staff retention
4) Agencies should encourage
opportunities for input into decision-making.
Many staff members perceive participation in the decision-making
process as a very important determinant related to staying in a job. It
is also an area where staff in general feel that agencies do not perform
very well. Input into decisions illustrates both a real concern, that
everyone’s perspective is brought to bear on behalf of the clients, as
well as a symbolic one. Involvement in planning is a measure of how
one’s input, skills and abilities are valued by the organisation. It is,
for many, the ultimate symbol of appreciation.
Because of the influence of a role
Most of the successful staff in a child welfare agency can remember
a person somewhere in their lives without whom they would not have
likely become involved in work with children. Parents, teachers, public
figures and friends have a profound influence on the decisions we make.
Successful recruitment and retention depends upon the field creating and
promoting its own role models. This entails developing an appropriate,
active public response to the negative stereotypes of abusing foster
parents who so often receive front page coverage. It also entails a
strong campaign of public education that presents the reality of the
many fine role models that we employ every day in our agencies. Agencies
that attend to this are invariably successful recruiters.
Of equal importance are the role models
that staff encounter once hired. Mentors, experienced and capable staff
who lead by doing and impart their skills informally, are invaluable
assets to an agency. They represent the new role models who reaffirm
that the work is worthwhile, meaningful and fun. Too often, these
individuals are promoted out of positions where they are most useful
because agencies have no other ways of rewarding them for superior
performance. Remaining in their places are role models who are often not
so encouraging. Agencies who retain staff successfully do so by creating
a culture that encourages positive models while preventing negative
influences from having too broad an impact. In American society, whether
we like it or not, salary will always be the primary yardstick by which
success and appreciation are judged. Professionals make more than
non-professionals, great baseball players always make more than ones
with lesser skills. While research has disagreed as to whether higher
salaries always result in better recruitment and retention, a staff
member’s perception that his or her work is appreciated by the boss is
always a central factor. Everyone has basic human needs, which require
adequate compensation. If we expect people to stay, the wage must at
least reflect the realistic cost of living. What we pay is also a strong
indicator of what we value. Applicants are attracted to jobs and the
workers stay in positions when the value is apparent and represented by
the agency’s efforts to show its appreciation, monetarily and otherwise.
Money is an important, but not the
single important way in which agencies show appreciation. It will not
alone determine an employee’s longevity or effectiveness. Agencies would
be wise to assess money’s importance in conjunction with other factors
and incentives discussed earlier. A balanced approach that realistically
meets an employee’s expectations in all of these areas will result in
recruiting and retaining an agency’s most valuable employees.
Staff Perception of Agency
Opportunity to Use Skills and
Encouraged to Initiate/Problem
Experience Success With Clients
Cooperative Work Environment
Opportunity for Personal Growth
Culturally Responsive Work
Informed of Agency
Sense of Accomplishment
Clarity of Agency
Physical Work Environment
Competent Technical Support
Participation in Decision
Structured Peer Support
Mental Health Care
Legal Liability Protection
Realistic Work Load
Available Day Care
The administrator is responsible for
recruitment and retention The task of attracting qualified, dedicated
staff and retaining the best employees is central to the role of the
administrator. Arguably, this is the single administrative duty that
requires the bulk of our time and effort, and the one upon which the
success of our agencies ultimately rests. It is a difficult job,
however, made much more difficult when we lose sight of the fundamental
value of the work and of the worker. Effective employees do not come to
the job by accident, nor do they arrive in search of monetary wealth.
The ability to remember the things we once hoped to find in child
welfare, and to ensure that this search is rewarded for our staff, is
the key to ensuring that every child and family receives the best we
have to offer.
Fleischer, B. J. (1985). Identification
of strategies to reduce turnover among child care workers. Child Care
Quarterly, 14(2). 130-1 39.
Helfgott, K (1991). Staffing the child welfare agency. Recruitment and
Leonard, H. S.; Margolis, H. & Keating, D. J.(1 981). Salient factors
influencing resident advisor turnover: An exploratory study. Child Care
Quarterly, 10(4), 329-333.
Porter, L. W. & Steers, R. M. (1973). Organisational work and personal
factors in employee turnover and absenteeism. Psychological Bulletin,
80, 151 -176.
Ross, A. L (1983). Mitigating turnover of child care staff in group care
facilities. Child Welfare, LXII, i, 63-67. CWLA Salary study — 1991. A
study of the salary structure, career ladder, and turnover rate of the
Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services dependency staff with
findings and recommendations to the Florida Legislature. (1990).
Washington, D.C. Child Welfare League of America.