Human service agencies seek help, and they’re not afraid to get creative about it
A new billboard near Rte. 1 in Walpole suggests “Get Rich in Human Services.”
The advertisement, purchased by a Westwood nonprofit called Lifeworks, is hoping to catch the attention of people — so it can hire more of them.
“The goal of our campaign, the goal of us, is to help educate people about the quality of lifestyle and the job that you can have in supporting people with disabilities,” said Dan Burke, president and CEO of Lifeworks. “This is an opportunity to really contribute to someone’s life.”
Although some parts of the work have changed in the last year due to the pandemic, services continued. Lifeworks, which families organized in 1954, serves thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through services like residential and day programs.
“Their goal then, as our goal remains today, is to enhance and present more opportunities for the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Burke said. “We’re still an organization based around families and the people we serve.”
The staff that normally worked at day programs — which were canceled because of the pandemic — were able to shift around, working at residential locations in cohorts to decrease the risk of spreading the virus.
“We had to change jobs for so many people, and that helped us get people in our residences. But now our programs are open, so now the problem remains: Vacancies remain high,” Burke said.
The residential programs were considered congregate care, meaning nearly everyone is vaccinated — residents and staff — through CVS; the chance of exposure is greatly reduced. In addition to vaccinations, Lifeworks is also offering hiring and referral bonuses.
Another nonprofit offering hiring bonuses is Wayside Youth & Family Support Network, a nonprofit human services agency that offers residential programming and counseling.
Sophia Suarez-Friedman, who earned a master’s in social work from Boston College last spring, worked as an intern and is now a full-time employee.
“It’s very normal that there’s all different ages in an MSW (master’s in social work) program, and you won’t be alone in that,” she said. “I also think what’s cool is to think about what skills you already have in your previous jobs that could transfer over.”
Suarez-Friedman said she was drawn to Wayside in part because of frequent discussions about how equity and racial justice affect their work and hiring practices. Also, Wayside has generous benefits, including sign-on bonuses, wellness days and additional compensation for staff who can speak multiple languages.
“I don’t know that any of us are in it for the money,” she said. “We’re in it because we love doing this. So that’s the benefit, it’s I feel fulfilled by what I do.”
Suarez-Friedman said she was nervous before her first appointment as a therapist, but it ended up being easier than she was expecting because the job is about making connections with people. But there’s also a bit of bureaucracy.
“I think this was something that I had been told, but is definitely something that people need to know ahead of time, is that sometimes you’re just doing a lot of paperwork,” she said. “I have to take notes after all my client sessions and keep track of things, and there is some bureaucracy in something that is just about relating to people. It’s just part of the job.”
Burke said one benefit of working in human services is that jobs can be flexible. Some people in residential programs require 24/7 care, which means workers who may be juggling child care or other duties can fit in shifts around the work. Additionally, a lot of the onboarding process has gone online, so workers can do some of the initial paperwork and training from home.
Burke said Lifeworks’ hiring campaign is already seeing results, but he said the nonprofit will wait a few weeks to analyze what types of outreach are proving to be the most successful. He said Lifeworks will continue to track analytics on its website, using job sites like Indeed.com and may consider advertising on billboards in other locations.
“So far, our hiring has started to pick up,” Burke said. “We’ve gotten hundreds of resumes, instead of dozens of resumes.”
Although billboard advertising is eye-catching, it may not be possible for some human services agencies, already stretched thin by the pandemic, in an industry that does not typically come with high salaries.
Michael Weekes, president and CEO of the Providers Council, a human services membership association based in Framingham, said a number of factors contribute to the difficulty of hiring and retaining workers in human service jobs, including student loans and the high cost of living in Massachusetts.
The Providers Council has a job board where members can post job openings and potential employees can post resumes. It’s also doing some advertising of its own.
“One of the things that we’re doing is a campaign to say ‘thank you,’ so we’ve got some lawn signs that we’re putting out throughout the state, also a billboard,” Weekes said. “Just to say thank you to our essential human services workers, and letting our community know about that.”
Weekes said the Providers Council is also approaching the issue of low pay from the legislative and public policy side, working with the Legislature to introduce bills that would give private-sector workers’ salaries that are comparable to that of state employees in similar positions.
“I think they’ve been very receptive to this,” Weekes said. “There’s an understanding that what people are being paid is not enough, and then the question is, how quickly legislators) can help us close that gap between what (workers) are getting paid and what they really need to get paid in order to be able to live here in Massachusetts and do the great work that they have been doing.”
Ultimately, if someone is looking for a career change, it can’t hurt to check out human services, advocates say.
“We really want to encourage people to take part, give us a call and learn about it. There’s no cost to reaching out and contacting us,” Burke said. “Go to our website and take a look.”