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Will Homeless Services Face Worker Shortages?
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Will the homeless services field face labor shortages over the next few years? The HRC shares research highlights on the projected shortfall. As baby boomers begin to retire and there is increased demand for workers in the social assistance field, the picture is bleak. The effects of the current economic recession on demand remain to be seen. However, it is certain that basic workforce training must be a priority for the field.
Will Homeless Services Face Worker Shortages?

Will there be enough homeless service workers to meet needs over the next few years? There is no simple answer. Recently, two agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and SAMHSA--considered the future need for social service providers. Both concluded, with some urgency, that significant workforce shortages are likely to occur in the near future. Both agencies recommended a systematic focus on workforce development strategies, including training and expanded roles for consumers and family members.

Three factors are causing the nation’s working age population to shrink:
  • Lower fertility rates: People have been producing fewer children so there are fewer young people in the population.
  • Greater longevity: At the turn of the twentieth century, the average life expectancy was about 30 years. Now it is 67 years.
  • The approaching retirement of baby boomers: Roughly 80 million born in America between 1945 and 1965 will be leaving the labor market and fewer younger workers will be available to take their place.
Postponed retirement by boomers who want to maintain their standard of living could make up some of the loss of workers. However, this may provide little relief in the field of homeless services. Even if workers postpone their retirement, in their elder years they may abandon homeless services in favor of work environments they perceive as less demanding.

Social workers are a large part of the homelessness workforce. Replacement of retirees in social work may be a serious challenge. The Department of Labor estimates that by 2016, the demand for social workers will increase by over 50% in the “social assistance industry.” This is due largely to an aging population in need of social work services. Schools for social work produce about 30,000 graduates each year. Yet a nation-wide survey by the National Association of Social Workers found many respondents reporting serious symptoms of labor force shortages.

The Department of Labor estimates that by 2016 all jobs in the social assistance field will grow at 59% compared to a rate of 11% for all other industries combined. The occupations that include most homeless service workers have the lowest projected growth rate. However, this does not mean worker shortages will be less severe. It is likely that the high growth occupations may siphon off the supply of workers.

It’s not just a numbers game
Most authorities agree that shortages are not only a function of population and labor demographics, but also growth prospects for the economy and the demand for workers. With the severe downturn in the economy, the most immediate question may be the level of training and skill of the workforce rather than its numbers. In May 2009, the number of unemployed persons nationwide increased to 14.5 million and the unemployment rate rose to 9.4%. Job losses have occurred in nearly all occupations. It is possible that the new availability of workers may alleviate shortfalls in social assistance workers in the near term. However, re-training will be an urgent need.

New populations of people experiencing homelessness underscore the importance of training. Combined with high unemployment, rising mortgage foreclosures have produced substantial increases in homelessness, particularly among families. At the same time, reduced public revenues have caused a drop in public funding that might have allowed an expanded workforce for homeless services. While the stimulus package may offer some relief, there is no question that the homeless services workforce will be called upon to work far harder and smarter than ever before.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this summary of labor force trends:

  • First, while no one knows how large a labor force shortage the country may face, providers would be well advised to prepare for the worst case. Preparation means making sure that human resource policies in homeless service organizations can attract and retain a workforce that can meet the difficult challenges involved in serving homeless populations.

A previous article "Staffing for Success: Ten Tips," reviewed a range of strategies that providers can use to improve their recruitment and retention efforts.
  • Second, it is possible that current unemployment rates may reduce near term labor force shortages by providing new sources of labor. It is important to remember that this relief is likely to be short-lived, disappearing when the economy rebounds. It is also likely that new workers may be drawn from fields outside of human services. In light of this, a new emphasis on basic workforce training will be imperative.
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