Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

E-News Exclusive

Turnover Stymies Professional Development

By Sue Coyle, MSW

Turnover—the rate at which employees leave and are replaced at an organization—is an aspect of business with deep impact, particularly in the social work field. For one, it can negatively affect the services clients are offered, seek, and engage in.

“In order to help more children, families, and young people in more locations, we are constantly looking to hire, train, and retain quality staff. We also promote mostly from within and need to bring on new frontline staff as others move to management positions,” says Kristen Farmer, recruiting manager at Youth Villages, a private nonprofit that works to help emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families. “The therapeutic relationships built between counselors and children and families are vital to our ability to provide effective services, and turnover directly impacts that.”

It also affects an employee’s access to professional development. As Farmer notes, Youth Villages and many organizations like it attempt to promote from within when possible and appropriate. “We’re constantly preparing the next generation of leaders,” she says. “We strive to give entry-level employees the support and structure they need to grow into leadership positions.”

This, however, is impossible if entry-level employees don’t stay long enough to benefit and if managers are stretched thin by openings. “Our leadership team picks up the slack if there’s a gap in frontline staff,” Farmer adds. “That affects how much time they can give to supporting the people they supervise. It can affect the amount of professional development that goes on when staff is in transition.”

For social workers in particular, turnover can stunt credentialing and thus career moves, says Cho Salma Win, MSW, a social worker and millennial in Boston. “If you don’t stay at a job long, it’s hard to build your skill set and expertise. Just trying to get your LSW or LCSW is very expensive and time consuming. Some organizations will not pay for professional development classes unless you have been with the company for a while.”

One key, then, to creating an environment that is able to foster professional development is retention. For that to happen, companies and employees need to better understand the catalysts for turnover.

The Millennial Factor

A common theme in media, both news and social, and in offices throughout the country is that millennials are to blame for increased turnover. The term “millennial” refers to any individual born in the 1980s and 1990s. Though start and end dates for the generation vary, the term can currently be applied to anyone between the ages of 17 and 36.

Opinions also vary, but some of the dissenting views describe millennials as power hungry, ignorant of hierarchy, obsessed with benefits outside of the norm (think nap time rather than sick time), disconnected from human interaction, too connected to technology, lazy, and lacking in loyalty. Basically, if all this is true, they are a disaster in the workplace.

Of course, this can’t all be true. As all good social workers know, to generalize a group of individuals, be it a group of 10 or 80 million-plus millennials, is to grossly misjudge. But it is safe to say that millennials, as a generation, appear to want things from their companies and their careers that may not coincide perfectly with what previous generations sought.

“Within our workforce, the scale is tipping to a place where there are more jobs than applicants. Students may study social work because of an intrinsic desire to help others, but they are graduating with classmates who are going to work in fields where they are being offered the moon: flexible schedules, bonus checks, travel, happy hour Fridays, work from home Mondays,” Farmer says. “In our field, many organizations are unable to match these competitive perks.

“In my opinion, millennials may be leading a shift in workforce priorities, bringing more of an emphasis on flexible schedules, competitive starting salaries, and work-life balance,” she says.

If that shift occurs, it will take time. In the meantime, are these workers too eager to move on from jobs? Are they also leading the rise in turnover?

“I’m not sure,” Farmer says. “The perception certainly is that recruiting and retaining millennials is making staff recruiting harder for everyone. We’re working hard to find, hire, and keep top-quality staff.”

Carroll Schroeder, MS, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a statewide association of accredited, private nonprofit organizations serving vulnerable children, youth, and families, believes focusing in on millennials is too narrow a view. “I think it’s more useful to look at internal and external conditions that impact turnover for all age groups, rather than blaming a single age cohort.”

Additional Causes

With that in mind, what else is causing the social work turnover?

Schroeder lists a variety of reasons: “Increased competition for social work staff from health care and public social service agencies; depressed wages and benefits in the private, nonprofit sector; demands of work with children and families on the margins of society; and desire of clinical social workers to go into private practice with the ‘worried well.’”

Win builds upon Schroeder’s thoughts, adding that support is vital to retaining employees. “I believe turnover is due to burnout and lack of support from management,” she says. “No matter how much you enjoy the work, unless there are ways that the institution you work for supports methods of combatting burnout, there will be a lot of turnover.”

Farmer agrees that burnout is a concern. “The work we do is challenging. Helping troubled children and their families is not easy. Our models show proven success rates for the children we serve through empowered, accountable front-line staff on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The work is incredibly rewarding, but it also can be stressful and physically and emotionally demanding.”

Additionally, “Jobs in our field don’t typically come with good hours or high salaries,” Farmer says.


With so many influencing factors, organizations and individual professionals must work diligently to combat rising turnover. That starts with recruitment. “Hire the right people to begin with,” Schroeder says. “Hiring is a matching process between the needs, demands, and culture of an employer and the expectations, qualifications, and work ethic of the employee.”

A part of that match is information. “We try to give potential employees a good sense of what working with children with emotional and behavioral problems through our models is all about during the recruitment and interviewing process,” Farmer says.

Once the employees have been selected, it is vital that the organization continue to offer support without coddling the employee. “Create a work environment that is supportive while demanding of excellence. Offer opportunities for professional development while holding social workers accountable for utilization of what they learn. Provide flexibility in work hours while expecting responsiveness to the scheduling needs of clients. Respect the individuality of social workers while engaging social workers as part of a team at an emotional level in the mission and values of the organization,” Schroeder says.

And don’t be afraid to evaluate and reevaluate continually. “Try to understand the holistic priorities of your workforce and compare those to what you ask of new employees,” Famer advises. “There may have to be compromises so that both personal and organizational priorities can be met. For instance, Youth Villages has seen the field move in a direction where more and more positions require a master’s degree. We provide tuition reimbursement and licensure supervision to our employees in order to maintain a workforce of people driven to succeed.”

Farmer adds, “Right now, we have an outside source surveying every single staff member to get input on how we can enhance our working environment. We have strong, smart staff members, and we know that we must continually work to understand their needs and adapt accordingly so that they can do their best work for children and families.”

The responsibility doesn’t just fall to the employer, however. The employee is also a crucial part of minimizing turnover. Schroeder advises balance when considering job changes. “Do what’s right for you while respecting your employer’s investment in you as an individual, employee, and social worker.”

Farmer recommends patience. “I do think sometimes employees miscalculate how challenging the work in this field can be and how long it may take to become truly proficient as a counselor,” she says. “Sometimes people move on to other jobs before putting in the time it takes to meet their expectations with us.”

As for the millennial generation waiting on that shift, Farmer again calls for patience, reminding the workforce—young and older—that “Change takes time.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.