As Public Health Employees Battle COVID-19, What Does the Workforce Look Like?

New primer is essential as health departments identify and implement strategies to develop their future workforce.

Mar 30, 2020 | BLOG POST

As the nation faces unprecedented strains on its public health workforce from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing real-time how these professionals in state and local government protect residents and save lives.

Once we’re through this crisis, discussions will likely focus on a thorough evaluation of the public health workforce and how to strengthen it for the future.

Until then, here’s what we know now: the public health sector – and the state and local government workforce overall – is rapidly changing and continues to face employee recruitment and retention challenges. We also know that compared with overall state and local workforce, public health employees are more diverse, have more education, and are somewhat older. 

To help describe the underlying composition of the public health labor force and how it relates to the structure of the state and local government workforce more broadly, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) recently released a new report, How Does the Public Health Workforce Compare with the Broader Public Sector? This primer, developed with support from the de Beaumont Foundation, is essential as health departments identify and implement strategies to develop their future workforce.

A few of the report’s key findings:

  • In terms of workforce size, there were 19,544,000 state and local government employees as of May 2017; 1,227,330 (6.3 percent) work in healthcare practitioner and technical or healthcare support occupations. More specifically, 244,230 (1.2 percent of the overall state and local workforce) work in direct public health roles.
  • Regarding gender, the overall state and local workforce is 60 percent female, while the public health workforce has a greater proportion of females at 77 percent.
  • In 2017, the public health workforce was more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the overall state and local government workforce. Non-white cohorts – such as Blacks, Asians, and Latinos – make up larger portions of the public health workforce, relative to the overall state and local public sector workforce.
  • The age distributions of the public health workforce and overall state and local government workforce tend to follow the same general pattern. More than two-thirds of workers for the public health and overall government workforce are in the 36-to-65 age bracket. But the public health workforce skews somewhat older than the overall public sector workforce.
  • A sizable majority – 81 percent for the public health workforce and 67 percent for the overall state and local government workforce – has completed some type of post- secondary education.
  • The annual salary distribution of both the public health and overall state and local government workforce follows similar patterns, with there being fewer public health professionals in the lowest salary range.
  • Members of the public health workforce typically have a longer tenure than the state and local workforce overall. In 2017, the median length of time public health employees stayed with their respective employers was eight years, while the state and local government workforce overall had a median of 6.7 years.

These data are an important supplement to the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS). That survey provides insight into the demographics and attitudes of state and local government public health employees, as well as their skill set and training needs.

Once we’re through the woods of this crisis, SLGE plans to explore ways that public health departments and local governments have been partnering to address the nation’s greatest public health challenges. We’ll look at how jurisdictions collaborate across sectors to achieve their missions, leverage expertise, reduce duplication of efforts, and attract knowledgeable workers with essential skill sets.

In the meantime, our thoughts are with the dedicated public health professionals and the many other heroes working around the clock to battle this dangerous virus. 

Get more information on the report and a free April 3 webinar here.

For additional COVID-19 information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.


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