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Study: Retention of Local Public Health Workforce Continues to Pose Major Challenge

Contact(s):  Catherine Herman (518) 956-8150

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 21, 2008) - The local public health workforce in New York State is older than the average age of the U.S. civilian workforce, and nearly one in five public health workers plans to retire within five years, according to a study by the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University at Albany's School of Public Health.

The report, An Enumeration of the Local Public Health Workforce in New York 2006, says that the retention of its workforce continues to be a major challenge facing county health departments outside New York City. Not only are large numbers of older employees planning on retiring soon, but 20 percent of public health workers under 35 plan to leave the field within the next five years.

Public health workers are employed by county health departments to help prevent epidemics and the spread of disease. They work to assure healthy homes, communities and worksites, promote healthy lifestyles, assure high-quality health care services and prepare for and respond to emergencies. Public health workers include nurses, sanitarians, health educators, epidemiologists, disease control specialists, physicians, inspectors, investigators and others.

More than 12,500 public health workers were employed in the state's 57 county health departments in New York State in 2006, and about 4,300 people were employed in the New York State Department of Health.

"This research supports the need to increase the number of people who consider public health careers," said state Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines. "Training is essential to ensure that the workforce can address new and emerging public health issues. Governor Spitzer's Executive Budget includes support for the state's accredited schools and programs of public health to increase training for the public health workforce in New York. "

The Department of Health had convened the Public Health Workforce Task Force in July 2005 to address the recruitment, retention, leadership and training challenges facing this workforce. The findings from this report will help the Task Force measure its progress toward its goals for a well-sized, competent public health workforce.

"We need to continue to monitor the public health workforce. Such efforts can help us to better understand the most critical public health workforce needs and develop programs and policies aimed at public health workforce recruitment and retention," said Jean Moore, Director of the Center for Workforce Studies at UAlbany's School of Public Health.

"The field of public health is facing some of the most significant challenges in decades and demands a strong workforce," added Andrew Doniger, Public Health Commissioner in Monroe County and President of the New York State Association of Public Health Officials. "Due to the range of public health problems today, the field requires a wider variety of skills and a commitment to continuous improvement in skill development."

The survey was conducted in 32 of the 57 county health departments across the state, not including New York City. Among the key findings of the report:

  • The median age of a local public health worker is 49, compared to the median age of a U.S. civilian worker of 40. Sixty-two percent of local public health workers are between ages 45 and 64.
  • Nearly one-quarter of public health workers are new to public health. About 23 percent of local public health workers report beginning their public health careers within the last five years.
  • Forty-four percent of public health workers who entered the field in the past five years are over age 44.
  • Public health nurses make up one of the largest groups of local public health workers (24 percent), and they represent forty-six percent of the workers in rural local health departments.
  • Almost one in five county health department employees have advanced degrees (master's degrees or higher), but only 2 percent have advanced degrees in public health.

The Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University at Albany's School of Public Health conducts studies of the supply, demand, use, and education of the health workforce, and collects and analyzes data to understand workforce dynamics and trends.

View the report.

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