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Despite Looming Shortage of State and Local Public Health Workers, Americans Confident Governments are Prepared to Deal with Public Health Threats
Date:3/13/2008

New Center for Excellence Poll Highlights Gaps in Safety Net; Need to

Cultivate Talent to Fill Critical Public Health Positions

WASHINGTON, March 13 /PRNewswire/ -- Most Americans are unaware that state and local public health departments are facing a serious shortage of skilled professionals that could put the health and lives of citizens at risk, says a poll released today by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

Retirement rates are projected at 50 percent by 2012 in some public health agencies, yet only one in three Americans see this as a major problem for state governments, and only a quarter see this as a problem for local government, finds the poll conducted for the Center by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

"We count on public health professionals to prevent the spread of disease, protect us from bioterrorist threats, make sure our food is safe to eat, and our air is safe to breathe," says Elizabeth Kellar, executive director of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. "Those closest to the public health infrastructure know that the safety net is fragile. The public sector workforce is older than the private sector's, and state and local governments are facing their greatest turnover ever. Vacancy rates are up to 25 percent in some public health agencies, so there is no time to lose in addressing these workforce needs."

The poll of 1,200 adults probed the public's views of state and local government, including whether they find careers in government attractive. The findings show that Americans see working for state and local governments as a real possibility in the future. One in five workers is very interested in taking a job at some point with state and local governments. The numbers are even higher within specific areas of public health. Two thirds are interested in working in a hospital or other public health organization, while nearly 30 percent say they are very interested.

"The perception that jobs in public health would be attractive is an important one, for that is an area where a quiet talent crisis is building in state and local governments in the public health area," according to the survey report, "Facing the Future." In fact, some states have vacancy rates as high as 20 percent in key public health positions, and turnover rates as high as 14 percent, according to data from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).

The most severe shortages are in epidemiology, public health nursing, and environmental health. State health departments estimate they need 47 percent more epidemiologists than they have today, or nearly 1,200 new epidemiologists.

Part of the problem is finding workers to fill these slots. More than half the states report that they lack enough qualified applicants, according to the ASTHO data. Local governments report similar challenges. Local public health departments say they will have problems finding qualified nursing candidates this year; nurses account for 24 percent of their work force. Nearly 40 percent of local health departments also say they will have problems hiring qualified environmental health professionals, who monitor air and water quality.

Some states and localities have provided increased support for education and training. The federal government also can play a major role. Legislation pending in Congress, "The Public Health Preparedness Workforce Development Act," would establish loan repayment and grant programs for those pursuing degrees or training in public health preparedness or biodefense. These kinds of efforts have been effective in recruiting prior generations of public health professionals and could be expanded to reach a wide range of public health workers.

Keeping salaries and benefits in-line with the private sector will be another key move. "As even more of the public sector workforce becomes eligible to retire in the next five to 10 years, states and localities will need to sharpen their employment practices and offer competitive compensation and benefits to attract the talent they need," says Kellar.

Copies of Facing the Future: Retirements, Second Careers to Reshape State and Local Governments in the Post-Katrina Era can be downloaded at http://www.slge.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={7F3C617D-E952-42E6-B217- DB77F3BE3456}&DE={1171F6CE-8F47-469B-A58D-36E8CA6E3A44} (Due to length of URL, please cut and paste into browser.)

The Center for State and Local Government Excellence helps state and local governments become knowledgeable and competitive employers so they can attract and retain a talented and committed workforce. The Center identifies and conducts research on competitive employment practices, workforce development, pensions, retiree health security, and financial planning. The Center also brings state and local leaders together with respected researchers and features the latest demographic data on the aging workforce, research studies, and news on health care, recruitment, and succession planning on its website, http://www.slge.org.


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SOURCE Center for State and Local Government Excellence
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