Organizational Opportunities for Strengthening the Human Services Workforce


State human services agencies are charged with managing complex programs and designing innovative solutions to complicated social concerns. However, one of the largest challenges facing these agencies today has less to do with the nature of their work, and more to do with “who” is doing the work: they’re facing a growing rate of staff turnover and burnout. Agencies are faced with the loss of tenured staff, and given the gravity of much of their work, a struggle to recruit new qualified members. Agencies may or may not have flexibility on compensation, and leaders are also responsible for managing the competing budget priorities within the human services portfolio. However, states are making organizational changes to address these issues: states are reforming their recruitment processes, adapting team structure to encourage retention, or building in professional development and training processes that grow critical skills in staff. During the September Human Services Policy Advisors Call, the National Governors Association hosted representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development to discuss strategies to strengthen the state human services workforce.    


  • Michelle Graef, Project Director, Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development 
  • Megan Paul, Research Manager, Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development 
  • Robert Blagg, Research Manager, Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development 
  • Deborah Shropshire, Director, Oklahoma Human Services 

Key Takeaways

Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development: 

QIC-WD walked through their recent work to support states to strengthen their workforce through a framework that breaks down phases of the hiring and retention process into discrete moments for intervention. Some of these phases include: 

  • Building a pipeline by working with university systems and leveraging apprenticeship models 
  • Shaping the job by taking a deliberate approach to designing role descriptions and supporting technology that makes the worker’s jobs easier 
  • Shaping the workplace by implementing processes to include worker voice in decision making 
  • Improving recruitment by reforming job postings to attract qualified candidates, conduct targeted outreach, and
  • Selecting the right employee for the right job by implementing a competency-based interviewing process 
  • Strengthening the onboarding and training modules by incorporating current research
  • Building employee resiliency by developing employee peer mentors and support groups

QIC-WD also discussed the opportunity that states have to adopt an evidence-based management approach that has the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of best available evidence from multiple sources. Two aspects of implementing this management approach are: 

  • Knowing and using organizational personnel, turnover, human resources, and workforce data to take a systematic approach to identifying workforce issues 
  • Drawing on empirical evidence around employee engagement, hiring assessments, job embeddedness, etc. 


Oklahoma shared a collaborative project with QIC-WD to implement a consistent and competency-based hiring process for human services to address employee turnover after noticing discrepancies in the hiring process across local agencies. The outcome of the program was a 1.5x retention rate for those hired under competency-based protocol.  

Oklahoma shared a series of recommendations:  

  • Taking a “what do you need to bring” versus “what will we teach you” approach to developing the core competencies for each role  
  • Developing a standardized set of interview questions and a set scoring rubric 

Oklahoma also flagged a number of challenges they faced while implementing the program: 

  • Increased length of time for interview processes 
  • The demand for a virtual protocol during COVID  
  • The “crossover” between counties that utilized the process and those that didn’t during the study period 

Resources For States

Please find the slides for the QIC-WD and Oklahoma presentations here.