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Job drought worries service providers

A sketch of a dollar sign

By BRIDGET TURCOTTE

PEABODY — Local organizations like Northeast Arc are feeling the effects of an increase in demand for human service jobs even as the profession’s workforce shrinks.

A study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and UMass Dartmouth found a workforce shortage of “crisis proportions” among the state’s human service providers, which are generally nonprofit organizations that rely on state funding.

“We have baby boomers who are aging and are going to require additional care,” said Northeast Arc Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Simons, adding, “I have children and adults today waiting for services because I can’t find the staff to help them.”

The Providers’ Council study recommends a set of solutions ranging from creating legislation to help workers repay student loans and to create desirable career paths for millennials, focused on flexibility, mission and workplace culture. The study also emphasizes that there’s a need to eliminate the pay disparity between state and private human service workers and for support for policies that allow immigrants to enter the field.

Northeast Arc is a Danvers-based organization that helps people with disabilities become full participants in the community. The organization serves about 9,000 people annually in about 190 Massachusetts cities and towns. It recently opened a coffee shop on Main Street in Peabody called Breaking Grounds Cafe that employs people of all abilities and provides job training and experience in the food service industry.

It is one of the largest employers on the North Shore with more than 1,200 employees. Still, Simons said it’s impacted by the challenges outlined in the study.

“This workforce problem is a longstanding barrier that’s getting more serious and affecting our ability to do an effective job in supporting people with some of the most significant needs,” said Simons.

In addition to serving people with disabilities, the organization also takes on the needs of the elderly.

The study, which included a review of economic data and Massachusetts human service providers, found that more than one third of the state’s population will be 55 or older by 2025 and 24,000 to 25,0000 new jobs in the human service industry will need to be filled to accommodate them. More than 70 percent of organizations reported having trouble filling job openings.

Simons said Northeast Arc has a shortage of nurses and employees who have the credentials to work with patients with autism. Nonprofits don’t have the financial resources to pay employees comparable wages to hospitals, for example, she said.

“We’re constantly competing and not successful to be able to compete against hospitals,” she said. “We’re asking them to do even more difficult work, unsupervised in a home with a patient who may be on a respirator, versus going into a hospital where there’s a respiratory therapist and a whole team.”

Nurses alone are paid $10 to $20 less an hour, she said. The company tries to take the problem into its own hands by offering a chance to move up the career ladder within the organization and offering tuition assistance.

“I don’t see an end in sight and I certainly don’t see a quick fix,” Simons said. “We don’t have an appetite to have a responsible discussion about immigration and to address some of these issues but immigration is not the sole answer. We need to have more robust training programs and more in the pipeline to be able to educate a workforce for some of these specialized jobs. It’s like eating an elephant; we try to do it one bite at a time.”

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Bridget  Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.

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