De Beaumont Foundation Chief Program and Strategy Officer Brian Castrucci, MA. Photo by de Beaumont Foundation.

De Beaumont Foundation Chief Program and Strategy Officer Brian Castrucci, MA. Photo by de Beaumont Foundation.

The Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey, or PH Wins, tells the story of our public health workforce today.  The study, co-hosted by the de Beaumont Foundation and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, measured the strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, skills and beliefs of more than 10,000 people who protect public health everyday at state and local levels.

de Beaumont Foundation Chief Program and Strategy Officer Brian Castrucci, MA, discussed some of the most noteworthy findings in an interview with Public Health Newswire, including workforce satisfaction, gender disparities and age. Check out the PH Wins infographic to view the results.

The public health workforce is comprised of 72 percent women, 28 percent men. Yet women in public health earn less than men. What do these numbers tell you?

“I think anyone who spends time in schools of public health or intergovernmental public health knows that our workforce is predominantly women. What’s more surprising to me is that the pay gap still exists and I think that’s something that can be addressed — now.

The beauty of these data is that they’re not static. Any issue that comes up is correctable both through policy change and regulatory change. Most solutions don’t need to go to state legislatures or congressional (leadership). Things can change. With the pay gap especially it would be extraordinarily easy for HR directors to give you that data when doing hiring. I was in positions to do hires when I was in a health department and you knew salary ranges for each position. You can use that data to start to make changes.

PH Wins is two critical parts: knowledge and voice. These are new data — this is creating new knowledge and research that is actionable. Now what are we going to do about it? If we get 1,000 peer-reviewed publications out of this but there’s no change, I would 100 percent say that this is a failure. What we really want is action.

The numbers show that 3 in 5 people do not plan to leave governmental public health before 2020. Is public health doing a good job of nurturing a strong, long-lasting labor force?

Public health is credited for 25 of 30 years that life expectancy has gone up (since 1900). Those wins are in jeopardy. But we have some positive things going for us in looking at the next generation in our field:

  • public health is one of fastest-growing undergraduate majors in the country. We have people interested in our work; the question is how we get them to government;
  • we did higher than expected levels of job satisfaction. More than half of government public health workers say they would recommend their office as a place to work; and
  • 93 percent of our workforce in public health say their job makes a difference.

I think one thing our infographic shows is that having satisfaction in your job and stability really outweigh our challenges with pay. This comes at a really good time; we’re in a period of reduction of public health workers per capita. As public health leaders, these data are voice of our workforce. They’re not interviews, not focus groups, but a real representative sample at the state level.

We’ve also had more people with health insurance than almost any time in history, which also creates a new dynamic in public health. So the challenges also create huge opportunities.

The average age of a state public health employee is 48, which is at least 5 years older than the average of all U.S. industries. How do we create the next generation of public health workers?

The younger generation has a real role to play in what they can do within our workforce. We just have to do a better job recruiting them. I look at the huge leadership of (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director) Tom Frieden in the creation of a public health apprentice program and realize — it’s achievable.

So we know that the average age of a state public health worker is 48. Now, what are the reasons? Some of that age is retirement and I think for some of the transitions there might be a generational force with millennials and some of their movement within intergovernmental public health. Next year, a young public health worker might use their great experience, move on, go to take a lead position at a hospital (focusing) on public health. And I think that’s great: getting experience and moving on. I know that I couldn’t do half the stuff I do now without 10 years of governmental public health (behind me).

So public health should think about workforce development as much as retention?

It might not be the (old) career model. It might be: OK, entry-level, go to a hospital, come back as a senior leader, become a university leader, come back as health commissioner. The needs of a generation change. That’s one of the challenges we have in front of us, but we have the data to tell us what these needs are and what we can do about it.