Lately, the nation’s jobs marketplace appears to be on a roller coaster ride, especially within healthcare. With record resignations and work separations, many feel as though they are headed up to the first big climb on a roller coaster. The anticipation of who may leave next feels daunting; however, that churn means there are lots of qualified candidates looking for jobs, and employers have the opportunity to acquire truly talented individuals (similar to the thrill of that first big drop on the roller coaster). Like any scary ride, the ups and downs don’t stop there. The seemingly insurmountable wage war represents the twists and turns; an organization’s obligation to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce, and the effort that this obligation requires, can feel like a big loop that turns you upside down before setting you straight again. In the end, the roller coaster returns you to level ground. But any ride worth its merit gives its riders a badge of honor, having experienced profound elements that leave one with a new perspective. In many ways, the current jobs marketplace can do the same for Community Health Centers.

So, what should CHCs be focusing on to navigate the current jobs marketplace?

Know Your Data: We all collect data; it’s the nature of a Community Health Center. Data collection is generally established for external reporting or internal purposes. From a workforce development perspective, the fundamental strategy is using this data. To use the data, a CHC must know its data. Simply put, what is the story that your data is telling you?

For the workforce, data collection should focus on every aspect of your employees’ engagement: from pipeline development to recruitment, to sourcing and selection, to workplace engagement, to retention, to advancement, and finally to separation. Within each of those phases, the data has a story to tell. For example, patterns from pipeline development to recruitment can help gauge how effective an organization’s outreach is; further, separation data will help tell why someone is leaving to define trends. Suppose a significant number of mid-level employees are leaving. In that case, the “Great Resignation” is hitting an organization hard, or if a substantial number of first-year employees are leaving, there’s a perfect opportunity for a mentorship program. Understanding the story behind your data is often the first step in understanding your workforce development strategy.

Leverage Existing Infrastructure: For the most part, CHCs have an expansive workforce development infrastructure. The professionalization of these efforts has taken hold in organizations of all types over the last couple of decades, helping organizations transition from a transactional nature to one focused on relationships and engagement. That’s the good news. The even better news is that CHCs don’t have to recreate the proverbial ‘wheel’ to respond to today’s workforce challenges. Instead, leveraging your existing infrastructure to adapt to your organization’s needs and the workforce is far more effective.

Take, for example, the ever-growing commitment to substantive DEI efforts. Most organizations now know that DEI efforts require far more effort than simply putting together a blue-ribbon committee. Accordingly, the challenge for meaningful changes within an organization related to DEI relies on the actions. Those actions can (and should) be embedded within an organization’s existing infrastructure, like training opportunities for hiring managers, utilizing data to understand wage inequity, or utilizing professional development opportunities that lead to advancement. While these strategies require an affirmative commitment, the infrastructure to make these changes already exists and creates significant momentum toward positive change.

Engagement: “Employee engagement” can feel cliched at times. The rhetoric behind employee engagement is self-evident, but the concept is a truism for that very reason: it simply works. We know that individuals often say they leave because of pay. Still, when you look at the data surrounding separations (see the strategy above), engagement (or lack thereof) is often the culprit.

I’ve said it forever: people take a new job agreeing to a salary or hourly rate; they leave a job because of a lack of engagement. Certainly, this isn’t true for all, but it’s true enough that we must pay attention to what is truly happening when people leave. Being unhappy with your salary is often a proxy for lack of engagement. If we think about a typical salary complaint, it might start like “I’m not paid enough to deal with…” or “I didn’t sign on to have to do…”. Is this a complaint about one’s salary, or are there other underlying issues?

Employee engagement is how individuals develop agency within their job; no longer simply exchanging time for money, they are contributing to a greater cause (and what greater cause can an individual find than contributing to the health and well-being of our community’s most vulnerable populations). Engagement, when authentic, doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. When we use data to understand the needs of the workforce better, engagement can be as simple as job shadowing or job sharing, participation on an organization-wide committee, or mentoring (as a mentor or mentee), all of which are needs of an organization as well. When we help meet the holistic aspirations, engagement becomes powerful for the CHC and the workforce.

Beyond this silly roller coaster metaphor, the state of workforce development is genuinely in a transformational phase. Even though we don’t yet know how this will play out, many truisms remain: career pathways for your employees are a tried-and-true strategy; “grow your own” approaches are as effective as ever, and a substantive commitment to DEI will transform your organization.

Steven Bennett, MA, SHRM-SCP
Director, Workforce Programs
Florida Association of Community Health Centers, Inc.