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International Answers To U.S. Staffing Troubles.

The scarcity of qualified staff is a major struggle for every nonprofit manager. Supervisors know how hard it is to recruit employees, particularly when they must offer salaries and benefits well below average. They've learned that they must somehow shrug and make the best of it.

Nonprofit employers have historically benefited from economic downturns, but even the recent slowdown has not eased the crisis. The problem is not confined to employees. Volunteers are just as difficult to recruit and maintain. And, getting good community leaders to donate their time as board members is growing more difficult.

What can nonprofit managers do to combat this shortage? What are practicing nonprofit managers doing and how are their support organizations working with them?

For this, the first Executive Session outside of Washington, D.C., we traveled to Boston to interview three respected nonprofit executives:

Charlotte Beattie, executive director of Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Boston; Richard J. Walker, Jr., president, Road to Responsibility, Inc., Marshfield, Mass.; and Michael D. Weekes, executive director, Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, Inc., Boston.

Together, these three executives represent all sides of local and regional human resource issues -- recruiting and retaining employees, volunteers and board members, political advocacy on behalf of nonprofits facing labor shortages, international recruiting, and innovative social enterprise solutions to the problem.

The session was moderated by Thomas A. McLaughlin, senior manager, Grant Thornton in Boston, .who also writes the Streetsmart Nonprofit Manager column for The NonProfit Times; and Paul Clolery, editor-in-chief, The NonProfit Times.

Thomas A. McLaughlin: Please give us a quick synopsis of who you are and your involvement.

Charlotte Beattie: We are a chapter of a national organization, Make-A-Wish Foundation of America. This chapter was founded in 1987. Since then, we've grown from an organization that has granted one wish the first year, to an organization that is now granting nearly 200 wishes to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses in eastern Massachusetts.

We have a professional staff of 10, but the major component of our work is done through our volunteer corps, which numbers around 300.

Richard J. Walker, Jr.: Road to Responsibility is a developmental disabilities direct care provider. We're a very entrepreneurial organization that has grown from its founding in 1988 to a $15 million budget with 400 fulltime employees. We provide services to about a 1,000 individuals.

Michael Weekes: The Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers is a statewide organization of contracted human service organizations, founded in 1976. It was right about the birth of the de-institutionalization movement, when people were moving out of institutions and back into the communities.

This association was given birth to try to recreate, form advocacy, control and help monitoring in this industry, and we are now grown to be the largest association of this type in the state of Massachusetts.

McLaughlin: How are each of you experiencing the labor shortage? What are your stories?

Walker: We have the intersection of three trends: No. 1, the hot economy of the last few years makes it an economic driven scarcity. No. 2, is a demographic piece. The age group that most typically works in the human services and nonprofits is a smaller quadrant than it has been in recent decades.

When you think of human services provided historically, it is something that a young person did for one to three years at a juncture in their life.

A certain percentage would stay in the field, but a larger percentage would go off somewhere else and take that experience with them. The absolute number in that group is declining, when you add to it that they are carrying large student loans, they have better prospects.

Then you add No. 3, which is the one that I fear the most. It is the cultural change. This work was seen as valued 20 years ago. I call it the maiden aunt test. When you were 22 and you went into human services, your maiden aunt said you are going to go to heaven. Now your maiden aunt says, "What, are you stupid? Where are the stock options?"

Weekes: We have a vexing problem here with salaries. Secondly, it's about benefits -- how we support folks, whether it is health insurance or education. And, something I picked up on what Rick is saying, is the image. The image of the industry is not defined well, and it doesn't fit well to someone coming out of college. They are not going to want to work when you look at how much money we are willing to pay them.

We have a major effort just to get starting salaries up to $12 an hour. How does that fit in with the local grocery store? Can we meet or match that and add benefits? We still have to look at the fact that money, money, money is driving this.

After that, it becomes an issue of benefits, how well we support the people who come in, how we treat them. All of that is in the context of society somehow giving the message we really don't value this work.

Beattie: What we are doing at Make-A-Wish is really putting a major focus on recruiting, training, bringing in, engaging our volunteers and really treating them, if you will, as staff within the organization, getting them really integrated into the programming and work of the organization.

McLaughlin: How are you experiencing the shortfall in numbers of employees? Is it turnover? Is it vacant positions? What, in the trenches, are you experiencing?

Walker: Our major emphasis is on retention, so our turnover rate is doing better than it was. It is a matter of absolute number of candidates to fill positions. I think it gets down to basics. And then, within the trenches, it is the difficulty of convincing people to take steps up in positions of responsibility, management growth.

That used to be a major part of why people would make that fork in the road decision, you know? Okay. I've done my two years, now I am going to leave, or, I have done my two years, I am enjoying it and now I am going to take that house manager position or that first level of responsibility. A fairly significant number of people are saying no to that.

Clolery: Why?

Walker: I think part of it is economic. As Michael said, there isn't a significant difference in pay, in status, in perceived work load and responsibility. Part of it is that cultural thing. I don't think people see this is as: "Well, I am going to get on a career track and I am going to keep going."

Beattie: Over the past year we had a number of positions that were open. We're receiving many, many resumes, many interested parties, but they are really not at the level that I would expect for these positions.

In part, I think it is where we are living. In Boston, there is an incredible amount of competition for good people. We are in an area where there are many, many nonprofit organizations and people with that orientation may be already taken. The pool may not be large enough to really support the growth of our industry.

Weekes: That is a good point. Boston has the fourth highest cost of living in the nation. Obviously, it is very difficult for someone coming out of school to take a job that is going to start them at under $20,000 and expect to live any type of decent life.

The turnover has been a major problem. Within the past three years, one turnover study indicated in certain positions it (the rate) has more than doubled. That is totally unacceptable when you understand the essential element is that relationship between the caregiver and the person they are serving. When that person starts changing every two or three times around, you do damage to the relationship.

Clolery: Is this a Boston phenomenon, or do you think ours is a changing economy and that not only nonprofits, but business and the rest of the society, have to step up to the plate on a couple of issues, like pay?

Weekes: As I talk to my colleagues across the nation, it's clearly not just a regional or Boston issue. It is a national issue. For those who are dependent on state contracts, which many of my members are, it is clearly an issue where the state has held a false economy. It is not one based on market-based reality, that this is the going rate to help support that staff person.

For a toll collector, which is semi-state, the average pay is $37,000 and the starting and average pay for the people we're concerned about is under $20,000. There is something wrong with what we think about helping people.

McLaughlin: How does the government, as a funding source, exert that downward pressure? What are some of the symptoms and signs and tactics that are used?

Weekes: Tactics is a good word. What you have to recognize is they are the chief funder. They pay the bills. The services that we provide are essentially to one client and that client is the government to some extent.

When you've got that relationship going, they control pretty much how the product is delivered and how much they are willing to pay.

Walker: It is a general economic phenomenon. We talk about our turnover rate, I've seen one on residential direct care that it is 46 percent nationwide. That is an enormous number. You talk to our retail colleagues, their numbers are 100 percent. What's their response to it? Their normal economic response to it is eliminate a problem. They go to mechanization and other kinds of efficiencies that lower the percentage of human bodies they need.

For example, there are a couple of fast food prototype restaurants that basically have eliminated the back end of the work force. Everything is automated behind the counter. There are even counter touch-screens, so that the customer does the work.

That is taken out of our hands because our industry, by definition, is human services. It is the human connect, so you have an economic squeeze. Normal economic response is increased prices. Well, the primary customer, the government says, "Guess what? We are not going to increase prices."

Clolery" You just gave the example of fast food restaurants. Many such restaurants are utilizing alien workers. Is that impacting your sphere?

McLaughlin: Let's respond to that. What is the degree to which you have used immigrant or documented aliens?

Walker: There is no cost savings because the visa programs that we use specifically require degrees and that the person be paid the same commensurate wage as other employees in the field. Then there are, of course, the recruiting costs.

The outreach on the international recruiting has been to address the issue of the quality of the candidates: Educated, highly motivated, wanting to work in the field of disabilities, committed to doing this, committed to learning.

In most of these visa cases, they are temporary in nature, 18 months or so. They take that knowledge and return to their home country. So, I haven't seen, and I don't think you could have, a great deal of success in the kind of alien recruitment that is done for economic reasons.

McLaughlin: Let's talk about the recruitment you are doing. You are recruiting internationally?

Walker: Right now we are heavily into the Czech Republic and into Canada. We are opening up Mexico and we hope Chile fairly soon. Because we've gained a reputation, we get calls, so we've had people from Ghana, England, and other places contact us about the visa program.

McLaughlin: Talk about your recruitment programs in these countries. How does it work?

Walker: The first one we went on the ground to the Czech Republic where we sent our staff. We had a local contact who did some prescreening through the universities. Then, we literally went and interviewed and recruited. Through our group of wonderful employees who have come, they are making referrals and we are using other 'methodologies, telephone screening, Internet screening, and we hope eventually video conference screening, to eliminate the cost of going over there to go interview

Clolery: How long have you been doing that?

Walker: Three years. We have 31 people we've brought over from various countries and we have 18 more in the pipeline for later this summer and into the fall. They're a wonderful caliber of employees, very successful.

Beattie: How long are they here for?

Walker: We've had only two adverse terminations of that whole 31. One of the visas we use is through the North American Free Trade Agreement. With Canada, it is a one year visa, but it is easily renewable. Many of those folks have renewed.

The program we are using in the Czech Republic is the J1 visa. That is a more restricted, 18-month intensive learning and work experience with very, very little prospects of renewal by the government. But, we haven't had anyone leave early. We've had everybody, in fact, making 'their own efforts to try to renew the visa [somehow because they are so satisfied.

It has really been a quality effort, not 'as much an economic. There have been some significant front-end costs, in fact. We do the social entrepreneur thing. We have one motel we've owned now for nine years and we bought a second one. We use that to house the international folks when they first arrive. We give them two months of free housing to get settled and then assist them to go out and find apartments.

McLaughlin: Are there cultural diversity adjustments?

Walker: Absolutely. We assign a staff development person whose role is to work with the international folks around those cultural issues. More importantly, they work with our staff and managers on those cultural issues to make sure that it goes .as smoothly as humanly possible.

Many of us have a tendency to refer to it as Czechoslovakia because that is what it was. Well, the folks in the Czech Republic are very proud of their independence from communism and the fact that they are a separate country than the Slovak Republic.

Clolery: If you are taking them as far as the visa, why wouldn't you take them the next step to citizenship?

Walker: We don't know if that is what they came for and are interested in. They came here for training, support and education. They are going back to their countries and doing some of the things that people have already modeled and built systems in their own countries.

McLaughlin: What are some of the ways you have been looking at?

Weekes: We looked at benefits and what is stopping people from coming in here and staying. Benefits has been one of them. Health insurance has been an absolutely devastating factor when people start looking at their salaries and what they can afford to pay.

We just recently completed a study of our providers and found out that although 100 percent of our employers are offering health care plans, only 53 percent of the workers. participate in them, and 4 of 10 of our direct care workers. have no health coverage.

We have a growing number of working uninsured, and we can only sense from that that we are talking about dollars and people looking at paychecks and saying, "Boy, I'll take my chances on not paying that premium; and if I need it, I'll go to the emergency room."

The other thing [has been education of those who aren't fortunate and want to go to school and need to go to school. How can we help them to go back to school, to get that higher education, when we know our contracts and salaries and our training and education budgets are down? One of the ways that we've tried to address that for the industry is through tuition remission program.

McLaughlin: What's that?

Weekes: We've worked with the public higher educational system. In any classroom there are going to be some empty seats. Our position was: "How 'about allowing our workers to sit in those two or three seats?" There is no cost for the faculty. There is no cost for the utilities. There is no additional cost for the schools. We are not asking them to build new facilities or hire more staff. These are empty seats that if they weren't there, they would go without a particular use. And, our folks would pay fees along with paying for folks. If you've ever been in the higher education system, you know that books and fees can be almost as much, if not more than, the tuition.

We thought that was a way of taking something that is there, that really adds no additional cost onto the state, and giving that opportunity to workers who are dying to learn. They can't afford it. This is an incentive. Hope. It will not only help in the recruitment but also in the retention end.

Beattie" Are there a lot of people taking advantage of that program, Michael?

Weekes" Absolutely. We've started in August and we've issued 'over 2,500 certificates. What that does is change the culture a little bit in organizations about yes, education is important.

Maybe we ought to do something about flex time schedules or 'maybe we can help you out with some of the book costs or provide 'some other incentives. Maybe we ought to think about doing professional development plans for employees. Those are some of the by-products that are really possible.

McLaughlin: Charlotte, what are some things that work in volunteer recruitment and management, since it faces many of the same issues that full-time paid staff recruitment does?

Beattie: We have a full-time staff person whose responsibilities are recruiting, training, engaging and recognizing our volunteer work force. One of the best ways that we found to recruit is word of mouth.

Our board members, our volunteer corps, our staff, are excellent vehicles for bringing on new people, because those are the people who know the organization best and can really sell it to potential volunteers. And, you are going to be looking to attract quality volunteers such as who are already in your organization.

McLaughlin: That feels like the kind of thing Rick was talking about with the students coming from the Czech Republic, going back and recruiting.

Beattie: Absolutely. These people know your organization. They can talk articulately about the mission, the importance of it and what they are getting back from it. From what I've seen and what I've read, volunteers are really looking right now in today's busy society to make a difference. They want to feel as though they are making a difference in their community.

We found that training our volunteers is critical. It is just like training your work force. You need to give them the skills and the tools to really work effectively.

Clolery: It is nice to say that word-of-mouth is bringing in volunteers, but if you look at all the national studies, volunteers are few and far between. Where are these people coming from?

Beattie: For us, there are a couple of important vehicles. One vehicle is our Web site. People don't have a lot of time these days. Put it right on your front page of the Web site, "We need volunteers." Then, if they are interested, they can go further into your Web site to get more information. That has worked very well for us.

Recently we started a campaign. We were looking for volunteers in a couple of targeted areas in our community. We found there were some communities where we really did not have volunteers. We placed ads in community newspapers. It was a huge success. We targeted those specific communities. It was a very simple ad, but it was very effective in reaching that audience that we wanted to reach in those communities.

McLaughlin: What's the typical profile that you are looking for in employees and how has it changed over the last 10 or 20 years?

Walker: When I started in this field of developmental disabilities, that is 20 years ago this summer, there were 12 employees in the program and 10 of them had bachelor's degrees and higher. Four of the 12 had advanced degrees. The two who didn't have their bachelor's were both in school. Michael, would you find that profile in any group of 12 nowadays?

Weekes: I doubt it.

Walker: The profile now might be in 12 people, one advanced degree, 2 bachelor's degrees and nine no degree status, maybe a few of them going to school.

McLaughlin: High school?

Walker: We demand it. But, you are not talking about the educational background that once existed. The training piece becomes a much more critical part of it. Yet, we expect more of our staff than we did 20 years ago.

McLaughlin: Who does the training and the support?

Walker: We've developed our own programs, starting with a three-day initial orientation, all the way through to ongoing training and support. It (orientation) went from being (handled by) the person who scheduled senior managers to occasionally go to a conference to probably the most critical function in the organization. It is the lifeblood of what you do in terms of quality.

McLaughlin: What does that function look like now?

Walker: We keep a training profile on every employee in the organization. It goes from mandated trainings that the state requires, to those that we have decided are mandated, to ones we see as desired. It's tied into some economic rewards to staff as they reach those training levels, all the way to targeting people who we want to see grow in the organization and supporting them to enter the tuition remission program.

McLaughlin: If the numbers haven't been there for the employees, and if the quality of those employees has been diminishing, what does that say about management ranks of the future? What is going to happen?

Weekes: Can I add one more element that we haven't talked about? That's the issue of diversity. You need only look at the census to know that Massachusetts would have lost population if it had not been for the new groups that are coming in who are speaking very different languages, whether it is Latino communities, African-Americans, Asian populations. That is now who is becoming part of your worker pool here, as well it should be, because it is also going to be part of your service population at some point, as well it should be.

McLaughlin: Let me ask this simple question. If the quality of your labor force has been declining over the last 10 or 15 years, what implications does that have for management of these organizations in the future?

Walker: I think we are going to see almost a skipped generation. This isn't a Massachusetts phenomenon in disabilities. It also affects and ties into when a lot of nonprofits were formed, the late '70s; age of the founders, senior people, late 40s, middle-50s. Where are they 10 years from now? What generation will backfill them?

I don't think it is a generation that a 55-year-old person is going to be naturally replaced by say a 45-year-old who has 15 years of experience. I think it is going to skip all the way down to that next group of people who are just entering things right now at 22, 21. I think we lost a whole generation for a lot of the cultural reasons, the go-go economy.

Clolery: The major universities, including here in Boston, have nonprofit management programs.

Walker: They are all consultants. (Laughter)

Clolery: In your view, the schools aren't turning out line people, they are turning out paper-pushers?

Walker: They are turning out people at a significant educational level, but a lot of them are becoming consultants. A lot of them are in senior management. A lot of them are in the big national nonprofits. Fewer and fewer than ever before, I think, are going into line nonprofit industries.

McLaughlin: Going along with your idea of skipping a generation, is the educational preparation of the manager population skipping a level, that street level that you talked about? Is that what you're saying?

Weekes: What I'm saying is there is no one coming up the ranks, in organizations, who needs some experience and has some training to move right up into those positions. There are some people who have been around in the early days of the '60s and '70s who are getting up there and saying where do we go? Where are we turning? What's Out there?

Maybe we need to merge as a way of doing things because there is just not a lot to help support and lead those organizations.

Beattie: I think we really need to look at mentoring and really helping younger professionals come up the ranks. I do think that they are there and they may not be obvious. I do think that mentoring and actually identifying people who potentially have the skills but have not yet had the opportunity to manage is another route that we can take.

McLaughlin: Have you ever modified a program or service model to accommodate the staffing shortage in any fashion? Is that a valid option under any circumstance?

Weekes: I think it occurs de facto. Programs with a large number of vacancies, operate with a large number of vacancies, either by using temporary staff or unfortunately they are understaffed. They are understaffing. The ratios are not what they like or should be, because there aren't enough people who exist at any time to do that.

That doesn't mean people are in danger. It does mean they are operating at far less than optimal levels in providing care and that is a fact of cost.

Walker: We identified that issue of people working for a few years and then leaving but still having an interest in keeping a foot in, people who were then willing to work a relief base or on-call basis. What we were mostly interested in was continuity, somebody who might say: You know, I can work 12 hours a week or I can work some kind of part-time schedule. So, we opened ourselves to that in terms of the whole scheduling and job creation.

We changed our benefit program entirely. You always used to have that the full-timer is benefited and then you had "other." We've created part-time capacities with modified, but really effectively full benefits. That has been a tool to keep someone on a part-time basis who otherwise we were going to lose.

We went down to 20 hours, so we created a category of 20 to 30 hours that somebody would work and basically have access to our full benefit package. It is designed as a retention tool, not as much as a recruiting tool but anything you can do to retain is a backdoor attack at recruitment.

Clolery: Is the whole concept of benefits no longer valid? Is it now just compensation?

Beattie: I would say yes. It is a total package. You can't separate them out.

Clolery: You used to be able to say because you are the CEO, or you are the vice president, that you got a particular sweetener.

Walker: We have none anymore. I have the same benefits as an entry level person in our organization.

Beattie: We filled a number of positions this past year, and I can tell you that that was one of the very first questions that came up early on in our discussions with candidates: What are the benefits?

McLaughlin: It is a threshold question?

Beattie: Absolutely. Do you have to get over that? Yes.

McLaughlin: What does the threshold look like around here?

Beattie: We are able to offer health and dental, as well as a long-term disability package. Something that I instituted this past year was 403(b) match. This is something that I did thinking really about retention. The employer part of the 403(b) plan Would go in effect on the one-year anniversary.

Walker: We added short-term disability and this addresses something that Michael talked about, looking at the percentage of people who were not participating in our health plan. And you know, we were very much concerned about that number. Some of it is absolutely economic. Some of it is a fairly rational response by a 21-year-old to what their health situation is and the gamble they are taking. But, we added short-term disability and we pay for it. We don't make it participatory by staff because they wouldn't.

Walker: I think there is a threshold issue around benefits. And if you meet that threshold, I don't see then there is a lot of energy that should be spent on then trying to up the ante to compete, because we've got so many other problems as nonprofits we need to address.

McLaughlin: Let me shift gears. Is there a role for temporary staffing organizations in dealing with a labor shortage?

Walker: We never had to use them for 11 years and then we had to use them for a while and are now about out of using them. I don't mean that as a negative, because the caliber of folks that they brought to us were pretty good and we demanded some continuity. We didn't want, if we were using them for a few weeks to help fill a gap, 17 people coming.

I think they do fill a role. I think they are maybe not the happiest necessity, but they exist in any kind of industry that has the numbers of direct care positions that we all have.

Mclaughlin: We talked a little bit earlier about the role of technology and how this isn't the fast food outlet that can convert over to self order and self-service or the self-service gas station. But, does technology have a role or is it a nonstarter?

Beattie: For recruiting, the Internet has been a phenomenal help. The younger generation, many of whom we're trying to attract to positions, are very Internet savvy. So for us, with job postings right there on our Web site, with listings at other major job search engines, those have all been very helpful.

Walker: Our emphasis has been on the back room operations. So for example, we have the same number of administrative, secretarial office kind of support people that we had when we had a 100 employees as we do now with 400 employees. Our business office has actually shrunk in size the last two years.

Weekes: I think organizations that are not thinking about strategic use of technology are making a mistake. It can help you train the staff who are out there in different places and I can't get them to a meeting. I have terminals in my group homes and residences. I can do online training. The point is that saves me on record keeping, which for government is phenomenal.
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Date:Aug 15, 2001
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