Career Development Strategies for Promoting Employee Development and Retention in Social Service Org

by Debbie Walker

Pathways, a private, not-for-profit community agency providing mental health, family counseling, and substance abuse services, has been struggling to retain its assessment unit clinicians. Why? A simple process change - centralizing assessments - without adequate training to accompany the change. Previously, specialists in each department (substance abuse, mental health, etc.) administered and interpreted their own assessments, capitalizing on the expertise in their ranks. After centralization (a misguided streamlining effort), the agency has experienced a 114% turnover in its assessment unit clinicians, fewer qualified applicants applied for the vacant positions, and the assessment staff who were retained were forced to become generalists with no cross training whatsoever.

As a career development practitioner and licensed clinical counselor, I have observed many helping professionals who are dissatisfied with their careers. In interviews, they reveal the sources of their dissatisfaction:

  • inadequate experience-based learning opportunities to further develop the competencies for their current positions;
  • lack of internal support;
  • poor communication between administrators and staff;
  • excessive paperwork/heavy caseloads;
  • limited career mobility.

Job burnout, poor performance, and high turnover are the most common effects of these employment practices. Disruptive workplace patterns that are all-too-familiar in for-profit companies take place in social services agencies as well. In businesses, quick expansion without parallel buildup of infrastructure can result in poor service, loss of customers and diving revenues; in non-profits, organizational or process changes that are not accompanied by parallel training and development can result in impaired service delivery, loss of clients and cuts in funding.

Social services need to explore the benefits derived from a paradigm that ensures that employee goals, manager support, and organizational systems align with the needs of the agency. Employees are often not familiar with their own organization's structure, goals, and future directions - factors that have an impact on their jobs and careers. Supervisors are not trained to do career counseling and do not know how to integrate information gathered through performance assessment to assist employees in their career planning. Due to budget constraints and/or lack of knowledge about how to implement such programs, many non-profits do not have formal career development programs. As a result, career development activities are often limited to job postings and a written policy that supports the practice of promotion from within the organization. A comprehensive, career development program can align individuals' efforts with an organization's objectives and performance management. Career counselors, in the role of career consultants, are equipped to assist social service organizations in the process of utilizing a career development system-planning model.

Career Development System Planning Model
Since usually no one within an agency has the training or availability to an institute career development effort, career counselors have a broad opportunity to provide this missing critical service. Hired as a consultant, a counselor could guide the process of need assessment, program implementation and even be retained thereafter as an outsourced counselor, providing guidance to individuals wanting to move forward in their careers. Following is a three-step process for preparing to an implement a system:

Conduct a needs assessment

      in order to identify problems, pressures or opportunities that will justify the implementation of career development system. For example, high turnover of helping professionals is a common problem, and cut in funding sources is an example of an outside pressure that forces entities to operate with less without jeopardizing their services.

Solicit support and commitment

      from individuals who have the power to make decisions for the organization. Successful employer-sponsored career development programs begin with the active involvement of top management, which include board members, administrators, and human resource personnel.

Evaluate existing human resource activities

    for availability and effectiveness as they relate to the design of the programs. Social service organizations need to be open and ready to provide employees with information on future human resource needs, educational assistance programs, job requirements, training and development opportunities, and job vacancies in order for career development strategies to be effective.

Implementation is the next step, but it is outside the scope of this article. It could take many forms, from a program the organization "owns" and integrates into its own human resources department to a completely outsourced effort. Regardless of the format, it is important that the career program be linked to performance management.

Career development systems teach employees how to manage change by helping them to be more adaptable to unforeseen events and develop the competencies for planned moves within the organization. Such programs also tie together existing human resource activities to achieve organizational objectives. Social service agencies may need to be "sold" on the idea of investing in their employees (and themselves) in this manner. Tight budget constraints can lead to short-sightedness - a counselor, in league with human resources, can remind administrators and boards of the cost of employee replacement.

Debbie Walker, M.S.Ed, JCTC, NCC, LCPC, is principal of P.A.C.E. Consulting and Career Management Services, a career development consulting and training company, located in Carbondale, IL. She received her B.A. degree in management from University of Illinois at Springfield, and her M.S.Ed. degree in counselor education from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL. She can be reached at email: debcareerconsult@aol.com.

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