The New Public Health Generation: I just got my MPH, now what?

In May 2017 I added six letters to my name, “MPH, CPH” to show that I have the degree and the certifiable core skills required to join the public health workforce. Armed with my new assorted alphabet, I searched for fellowship opportunities that would expand my skills and perspective beyond my education experience. Ultimately, I accepted the ASPPH Philanthropy Fellowship at the de Beaumont Foundation. I have been on the job for two months. Every single day of these two months, there has been an article, experience, project, or meeting that made me think “Why didn’t I learn this at school??”

I spent the second week of my fellowship at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) annual meeting. During this week, I quickly discovered that public health departments are the most fundamental infrastructure that protects the nation’s health. As a recent MPH graduate, this conference should have been my comfort zone. However, I found myself immersed in discussions about governmental functions, budgets, terms, processes, all of which I had never heard before. I realized that, although I studied public health, my knowledge and experience of public health departments was shockingly limited. I have never stepped foot in a public health department or even considered applying for a job in a health department. I began questioning whether an MPH degree adequately prepares graduates for the governmental public health workforce.

Throughout NACCHO Annual, I was presented with two frameworks that encapsulate the future and purpose of public health departments: Chief Health Strategist and Public Health 3.0.  Chief Health Strategists are health departments that convene hospitals, foundations, community-based organizations, and government leaders to strategically align policy, funds, and programs, in order to create healthy populations and environments. Similarly, Public Health 3.0 describes the responsibility of 21st century public health to make environmental, policy, and system changes that improve population health. It also challenges public health to collaborate across sectors, with business professionals and other government departments. These ideas were aimed at the workforce that was represented at NACCHO, preparing and persuading them to shift their local departments towards this next phase of public health work. Sitting in the audience, I was inspired by these visions for the future of public health, but at the same time, it was discouraging to feel as though I should already have been familiar with these essential terms.

With a behavioral science and health education concentration, I was trained to plan, implement, and evaluate programs based on behavioral change theories at Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice. And they trained me well! However, my education did little to prepare me to work in a public health department or understand the cross-cutting role of Chief Health Strategist. This is a problem for the public health workforce. The undergraduate and graduate degrees in public health have drastically grown in popularity, with over 20,000 graduates in 2016, of which less than 1 of 10 intended to pursue a medical degree. With an aging workforce, these graduates will soon be in higher demand. However, the new generation of workers will not be prepared to take on future challenges unless they are trained to work broadly in governmental public health and specifically under the visions like Public Health 3.0.

At NACCHO Annual I met public health officials who were worried about the opioid crisis, vaccination rates, and asthma incidence in their jurisdictions. They should also be worried about the students sitting in public health schools today, who are not learning how to be Chief Health Strategists or work in their departments. As one of the newest members to the public health workforce, I know the new generation of public health workers is motivated to transform our field and the health of our nation, but only if the transfer of knowledge and articulation of our mission reaches us where we are: in school.

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This year I am blogging about my experience as a fellow and what it means for the millennial generation to join and change the public health landscape. I will grapple with the changing public health workforce, interview leaders in and out of the field, and discuss the future of public health as my generation sees it. Follow along!

ASTHO and the de Beaumont Foundation Launch First-Ever Workforce Development Challenge

Also posted on the Association of State and Territorial Health Official (ASTHO) blog.

ASTHO has partnered with the de Beaumont Foundation to launch the first-ever national “Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs (PH WINS) Model Policies and Practices Challenge.” This challenge will provide state and territorial health agencies and local health departments with the opportunity to identify and submit successful and transformative workforce development policies and practices for recognition as model policies and receipt of one of three $10,000 awards.

Through this challenge, both ASTHO and the de Beaumont Foundation will highlight workforce innovations that are changing the public health field. Population health cannot improve without a robust, well-trained, and sustained public health workforce. Today’s public health workforce must have the training, tools, and development supports that our increasingly diverse populations and their evolving health needs demand. Yet research indicates that most workforce development efforts are focused on discipline-specific skills, rather than cross-cutting areas such as systems thinking, change management, and effective communication. These skills are needed to adequately address the following public health workforce challenges:

  • In 2014, nearly 40 percent of the workforce said they were planning to leave their jobs by 2020.
  • Preliminary evidence suggests that governmental public health agencies generally do not have succession plans in place in order to address what appears to be possible large-scale turnover in the workforce.
  • According to the 2014 PH WINS report, identified skills gaps in the workforce include policy analysis and development, business and financial management, and systems-thinking.
  • While the overwhelming majority of agencies and departments support a “culture of learning,” only 59 percent of the workforce said that education and training objectives were institutionalized in their performance reviews.

To advance the public’s health, workforce investments beyond discipline-specific competencies must take center stage. Strategic skills development (i.e. systems-thinking and policy analysis), as well as robust recruitment and retention programs (i.e. diversity and inclusion practices, cultural competency trainings, and creativity incentives), are key drivers in employee satisfaction, the recruitment of stellar talent, and improved outputs. Using solutions like these, state, territorial, and local health agencies are poised to confront the workforce development and human resources challenges that stagnate the public health field.

The challenge aims to highlight examples of model policies or programs that may include succession planning, fostering innovation and creativity in team members, equitable recruitment and hiring practices, workforce and professional development and supports, among others. All policies and practices submitted for the challenge will be categorized by topic and included in a national database to facilitate the sharing of best practices with other state health agencies and local health departments.

Applications are due July 7, 2017. To learn more about the challenge and submit your model policy or program, please visit ASTHO’s website. Questions can be directed to Kyle Bogaert, director of workforce research.

ASTHO and the de Beaumont Foundation’s shared mission is to produce cutting-edge research and resources that empower public health officials at every level. This challenge is an effort to celebrate and honor what you – our front line champions of public health in states, territories, and cities across the country – are doing to elevate the people and the tools we need to make America healthy. It is our firm belief that directly investing in and cultivating the present public health workforce will help produce the best and brightest community health outcomes for all.

Authors: Kyle Bogaert, Director of Workforce Research, ASTHO and Elizabeth Harper, Senior Director of Research and Evaluation, ASTHO

Elsewhere: Removing the Surgeon General: What’s Next for Public Health?

de Beaumont Foundation President & CEO, Ed Hunter, discusses developments at the intersection of public health and politics in the wake of the dismissal of the 19th Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy. Read Removing the Surgeon General: What’s Next for Public Health? on Medium here.