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25% of public health workforce could disappear, group says

Private hospitals that can offer better benefits and working conditions, as well as higher salaries, are poised to lure fresh graduates.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Baby boomers are beginning to retire in large numbers and many professions will have to attract and train replacements. In particular, the governmental public health workforce will experience significant losses through retirement and also through attrition due to budgetary constraints.

Researchers estimate that over one quarter of this workforce will disappear, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

[Also: Nonprofit, public healthcare medians eclipsed by rising expenses, Moody's says]  

The report noted that the state and local public health workforce has already shrunk by over 50,000 staff since 2008. And they further project that while enough students graduate each year to replace retirees and others who voluntarily quit, they question whether the public health sector can compete with private industry to hire qualified candidates.

National Association of County and City Health Officials data indicates that local health departments employed 147,000 full- and part-time staff in 2016, with about 103,000 employed by local governments and the remainder by state or local/state partnerships. State governments employ 50,000 staff directly, and another 54,000 who work in the agency's local or regional offices.

[Also: Moody's revises nonprofit and public health outlook to negative as hospitals face rising operating pressure]

Researchers triangulated the number of staff planning to retire or quit, and how many followed through. In total, more than 65,000 staffers will leave or have left their organizations during fiscal years 2016-2020, with 100,000 staffers leaving if all planned retirements occur by 2020. 

The authors noted that in some states, more than 50 percent of their workforce is eligible to retire, which could lead to localized problems with replacements.

U.S. colleges and universities now award more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees in public health each year, which could meet the demand for new staff caused by retirements and voluntary separations.

On the supply side, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates about 200,000 people received a formal public health degree at some level during 2000-2015. By 2020, an additional 55,000 undergraduate and 77,000 graduate public health degrees will be awarded, according to conservative estimates.

What is likely bad news to public health leaders looking to modernize their practices and operations by bringing in young talent, however, might be a welcome change for private hospitals that can afford to offer bright candidates better benefits, higher salaries and nice working conditions.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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