Post-COVID Public Health Workforce Planning: Now Is the Time to Begin

The Wide World of Public Health Systems

Post-COVID recovery of the public health workforce should begin as soon as possible. These questions may help guide your planning.

January 20, 2020, will forever be etched into history books as the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States. The country declared a public health emergency less than two weeks later. Over the next several weeks, almost everyone’s jobs and lives changed in some capacity, but this was notably true for the public health workforce. 2020 was spent still trying to figure out how to protect our communities. 2021 brought a small reprieve and glimpse at the light of the end of the tunnel as vaccines were rolled out, though at the time of this writing we still await an approved and effective vaccine for children under five. The relief from incredible vaccine successes was overshadowed by COVID-19 variants at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022.

According to the principles of emergency preparedness planning, recovery planning should begin as soon as response begins. In reality, this standard is hard to meet — most public health departments were overwhelmed by response needs early on in the pandemic. Even before we reached this point, the public health workforce was overwhelmingly tired. As we enter year three of the COVID pandemic, many are wondering when and how to begin planning for a post-COVID (or COVID-endemic) world. Even before we reached this point, the public health workforce was overwhelmingly tired. As difficult as it may seem, it is advantageous to begin planning now. To guide your planning, below are five questions to ask.

  1. How are you addressing workers’ current and future needs?

The pandemic has forever changed the landscape of the workforce with many employees opting for part-time over full-time, flexible work hours, and work from home options. Instead of going back to pre-pandemic “normal,” what changes has your agency made that could stay? While most public health agencies are not able to compete with the private sector salaries, there are some work-life balance incentives (such as those mentioned above) that may attract employees and increase retention. In fact, there is evidence that employees who have time-related autonomy and have work-from-home hours are more likely to balance work and non-work aspects in their life. What newer work-life balance trends could your agency adopt that would benefit both the workers and the agency? For example, a 30-hour work week has been shown to have a positive effect on productivity, save companies and employees money, and increase employee health. While worker’s future needs cannot be fully predicted, a workforce needs assessment can provide some insight.

  1. How are you addressing your workforce gaps?

Many public health employees have left or plan to leave public health workforce due to burnout around pandemic-related issues. Employees are exhausted, having worked long hours and covered the unfilled roles of departed employees without pay increases or promotions. This scenario continues to overburden remaining employees and may increase the likelihood of their leaving, further weakening the organization. The primary way to break this cycle is to address any and all workforce gaps that may have been in existence before the pandemic or created during. While filling these positions may be challenging, using some of the non-salary related incentives described above may assist. You should also consider whether your staffing should look the same as you thought it should prior to the pandemic. What are the long-term implications of a likely endemic COVID for your staffing model? Should any positions be added, moved, combined, or eliminated?

  1. How are and will you handle staffing changes?

Many employees were pulled from the job tasks they were hired to do and brought onto COVID-related projects. In fact, some of these employees are still helping with COVID response and have not migrated back to their previous job tasks. How are you planning to transition employees back to their previous tasks? Will all employees be going back at once or in stages? Should the end result look like it did before or be different? What happens if another COVID variant creates a surge in cases and your agency needs to scale up COVID response activities; how will you build in flexibility while still maintaining important services?

  1. What is your succession plan?

Succession planning is a method used by organizations to identify and develop high-performing staff so they can assume leadership positions. Many public health leaders are or will be eligible to retire in the coming years, and the pandemic has accelerated rates of retirement. Now is the time to create or revise your succession plan. COVID has highlighted the importance of succession planning on workforce sustainability. Some succession planning best practices include:

    • Pre-employment activities (e.g., internships, student practicums)
    • Identifying high-potential talent
    • Leadership development
    • Coaching and mentoring employees
    • Goal setting and performance measurement of employees
    • Retention activities
  1. Are students equipped to join the workforce?

Students are the beginning of the pipeline into public health workforce. However, it is not enough to simply recruit them into public health workforce positions; they need to be equipped for success with training, support, and opportunities to grow and advance. Such an approach increases retention and may alleviate some current and future workforce gaps. Some key ways to equip students for success include:

    • Partnerships with high schools: Getting students interested in public health before they even graduate from high school may encourage students to enter majors geared towards public health positions.
    • Partnerships with universities and colleges: Many students are still figuring out their career trajectories. These partnerships could provide students with multitude of experiences from simple introduction to public health to meaningful internships to build out their resume and solidify their desire to work in public health.
    • Internship programs: Many local health departments offer internships to students in public health, but an unsuccessful internship experience can end up deterring students from the field. Talk with interested students about what would be meaningful for them and support them throughout their internship.
    • Public Health AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have teamed up to create a program to meet the public health needs of local communities and develop pathways to public health-related careers. Consider being a host site for this new, innovative AmeriCorps program!

Author Profile

Chelsey Kirkland
Chelsey Kirkland, PhD (c), MPH, CHW (she/her) is a researcher within the Center for Public Health Systems at University of Minnesota, School of Public. During her time there, she has collaborated on numerous nation-wide, mixed-methods research projects working to support and build-up the public health workforce. Her background is in a variety of public health issues including health equity, health disparities, social determinants of health, and physical activity. When not working, she enjoys being outside with her family and two dogs. Her favorite activities include running, water-skiing, and playing violin.
Center for Public Health Systems, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota