Amidst a Staffing Crisis: Understanding how to Recruit, Retain, and Support Afterschool Professionals
Desiree Morales, Every Hour Counts
The prevailing story of Out-of-School Time (OST) during the pandemic feels triumphant — the value of our relationship-forward approach prioritizing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is in the spotlight, and the Biden administration pushed forward an unprecedented investment in afterschool and summer, recognizing that OST programs hold the key to helping young people recover from the missed learning opportunities, marginalization, and trauma that were created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need only dig slightly deeper to reveal a staffing crisis in OST programs across the nation, fueled by the burnout and tough working conditions plaguing the staff who supported our youth and families over the last 18 months.
““All of our direct service level folks are burned out from all they’ve had to step up to do throughout the pandemic to support young people and families, particularly while schools were closed,” shared Nathan Beck from Madison Out-of-School Time (MOST). “But as the pandemic has continued, we’re concerned about site and program director positions starting to churn too because they’ve really been doing three or four different positions these past 18 months just to keep things running.”
This concern reflects a national challenge OST providers are facing, with the devastating effect of stemming program growth, expanded access, and putting that federal investment to use. Lisa Caruthers, Director of the Center for Afterschool, Summer, and Enrichment (CASE) for Kids in Houston, TX, noted that her agency was expanding and she’s been forced to pivot on their expansion and instead pass on funding opportunities because she can’t guarantee she’ll have the staff to implement new work.
In a recent article entitled, Shortage of Afterschool Workers Over COVID-19 Fears and Low Pay Leads to Long Waitlists and Uncertainty for Working Parents, The 74 Million outlines how issues like low wages and poor working conditions, problems that existed before the pandemic, have been exacerbated in the last 18 months, resulting in many families seeing their children added to waitlists. The article quotes Dallas Afterschool vice president of program services Marjorie Murat, who said that Dallas “saw there was about a 45 percent seat loss in programs that were either no longer able to run, or that had to close.” She went on to say, “These afterschool programs are really a lifeline for working families, and they exist to support the working families and sustain the family unit.”
At the center of this unprecedented opportunity to expand high-quality OST programs to meet the needs of youth and families is a question that came up during our National Institute back in April, which has become a core question in the Every Hour Counts network: How might we recruit, retain, respect and support afterschool professionals?
The True Cost of High Quality
…it is imperative that we pay people more for the work they are already doing right now without putting any additional requirements on it.
Gina Warner, President and CEO of the National Afterschool Association (NAA), noted that wages for practitioners in our field have often been driven by templates used for 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals that need revisiting. She notes that there are a number of innovative solutions happening in cities all over the country, and that ultimately it is imperative that we pay people more for the work they are already doing right now without putting any additional requirements on it.
Practitioner wages are a critical piece of the overall cost of implementing high-quality OST programs. The Wallace Foundation has created an Out-of-School Time Cost Calculator which provides a low, medium, and high cost estimate based on responses to 11 questions about the program. The Cost Calculator is updated regularly and currently reflects 2021 dollars and cost-of-living data.
Additionally, focusing on working conditions, job quality, and a robust leadership pipeline are important steps to recruiting, retaining, and respecting staff members. Partnership for Children and Youth (PCY) Director of Programs Aleah Rosario in California shared that PCY conducted interviews of more than 20 summer learning programs that operated this summer — workforce shortages were a major challenge. One school district increased summer pay for certified staff by as much as 79% because they knew they’d need as much staff as possible. These pay increases emerging in school districts are terrific for the staff they impact, but the vast majority of practitioners work for community-based organizations and won’t benefit directly. PCY also talked to districts that were negotiating with unions to modify job descriptions and maximize the number of full time roles they could make available.
Emergent Solutions from the Every Hour Counts Network
The current staffing crisis and the opportunity it presents are at the center of Every Hour Counts network conversations, from our general meeting to the Workforce Development Work Group we launched to give intermediary leaders from across the nation an opportunity to learn from each other and build capacity to address it. Leaders shared that they are still in the initial stages of understanding the specifics of hiring challenges at the local level and identifying solutions to implement — already a few promising efforts have emerged and as the Workforce Development Work Group evolves, Every Hour Counts will support network members to amplify promising practices and develop tools and recommendations that will help communities replicate them.
A number of cities have responded to one workforce development challenge by creatively solving another: hiring high school students to co-teach and co-lead programs with qualified adults went well over the summer in cities like Omaha, according to Collective for Youth Executive Director Megan Addison, who shared that they are currently recruiting eligible high school students to help staff afterschool programs. But this won’t make up for losing highly qualified adult staff members, nor will it truly build capacity to expand access to high-quality programs, leaving many families in the exact predicament the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) aim to avoid.
In an effort to retain and support practitioners, provider agencies are activating Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and short-term leave to offer sabbaticals to those experiencing burnout. Providers are also creating cooperatives to expand the benefits they can offer to staff.
Felicia Young, the Senior Manager of Education, Training and Program Development at the Metro United Way in Louisville, KY, shared about an exciting partnership between BLOCS (a partnership between United Way, Jefferson County Public Schools and Louisville Metro Government) and the Center for Social Justice Youth Development Research at the University of Louisville to create a social justice and youth development certification program for practitioners in the field. The certification program will launch in Fall 2022. Designing a youth development certification program that is truly relevant to the field and grounded in best practices is an arduous process that requires deep investment and partnership, and intermediaries can play a critical role in convening partners to build innovative solutions rooted in research and best practices. Dr. Aishia Brown, who heads the Social Justice Center, has also invested significant capacity into the partnership, including guiding a doctoral student who drives the work and partnering to conduct the year-long research study of youth workers in the field to inform the coursework included in the certification.
“Free community college is free workforce development,” Rosario chimed in, and city and national leaders are in eager agreement that this would help professionalize the field, a goal our sector has been advocating for since long before the pandemic. If more cities can introduce and replicate successful certification programs, this would be a boon to the field as well as the individual practitioners who do the nuanced, challenging, and currently widely underpaid work of keeping high quality afterschool and summer programs running. According to Rosario, an important step communities can take is to utilize local labor market data to build a data-informed strategy to advocate for competitive wages and new or strengthened workforce training and certification programs.
A Multi-Level Racial Equity Issue
As programs respond to the crisis by shrinking their footprint, Felicia Young, Senior Manager of Education, Training and Program Development at the Metro United Way in Louisville, KY, notes that site closures have been concentrated in marginalized neighborhoods of Louisville, creating significant barriers for the communities that need them most.
Certification programs which value lived experience and field expertise is a promising step, but in reality these programs sometimes require already qualified people to take courses which have little or no relevance in the field, and in the most diverse sector within education, they can also create additional barriers to the marginalized professionals they are meant to uplift. What’s more, efforts that make provider roles more enticing can have a gentrifying effect as Collective for Youth Program Quality Director LaRon Henderson pointed out in his opening remarks as co-chair of the Workforce Development Work Group.
Warner says NAA’s Leadership Equity Research backs this up. “While front-line staff tend to reflect
the communities they work in, somewhere along the line, our field is unable to retain and grow staff of color into leadership positions. We can do better. A person can be the most committed to developing professionally, but it is tough for them to advance professionally without the necessary systematic and organizational supports.”
Turning a racial equity lens on OST workforce practices is also contributing to how agencies are re-examining the conditions and challenges faced by program-level staff. PCY participated in a statewide committee of OST stakeholders convened by the California Afterschool Network to develop an Equity Screen Tool that agencies can use to ensure that recovery decisions, policies, and strategies best meet the needs of employees most negatively impacted by COVID-19. There’s also AWAKE to WOKE to WORK: Building a Race Equity Culture which was developed by Equity in the Center to provide evidence-based guidance for leaders working to advance race equity in their organizations.
Every Hour Counts is Committed to Practitioner Support
As a national network of 28 intermediaries, Every Hour Counts is uniquely positioned to amplify practitioner stories and lead national collaborations that reflect local needs.
We launched our Workforce Development Work Group because our network leaders know that the outcomes we hope to help young people achieve are reliant on the workforce who makes high quality programs possible right now.
Our recently released Return to School Guide includes a section on Practitioner Support that spotlights articles, tools, and strategies from our network, like this comprehensive 2021 Afterschool Staff Recruitment Toolkit from Afterschool Alliance, and an article from Denver Afterschool Alliance entitled, The Unseen Essential Industry, which accurately characterizes the crisis:
“Comprehensive OST organizations have demonstrated that they are willing and able to rise to the post-pandemic challenges — and they are already strategizing how to do so. But they need consistent, reliable funding and partnerships to help strengthen programming, solve challenges, and fill gaps.”