Amy Hewitt and John Smith.

Responding to dire shortages in staff supporting people with disabilities, the Institute on Community Integration has expanded its national workforce consulting work, leveraging its longstanding position as a key thought leader in the disability field.

Direct Support Workforce Solutions, led by ICI Director Amy Hewitt (pictured at left with colleague John Smith), will combine organizational analysis and in-depth training for direct support professionals (DSPs) into a comprehensive strategy to help organizations recruit, train, and keep their best direct support professionals, supervisors, and agency leaders.  

“As states allocate federal emergency funds to address the staffing crisis that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, this offering represents an investment in the agency workforce that goes deeper than temporary solutions,” said Hewitt. “ICI has been conducting research, developing tools, and refining a data-driven consulting process for more than three decades. Direct Support Workforce Solutions brings our research, development and consulting expertise together to meet the needs of state agencies and individual organizations as they struggle to meet demand for long term services and supports and create effective policies and practices regarding the direct support workforce.”

ICI’s Barb Kleist and Kristin Dean will lead the operations of Direct Support Workforce Solutions, and Kleist serves as a lead consultant for the group, along with more than a dozen experts in disability policy and workforce development.  

“We bring evidence-based practices and craft solutions that help organizations build stronger workforce strategies to address recruitment and retention,” Kleist said. “This effort brings our decades of experiences, resources, and tools into a single, accessible space.”  Consulting services begins with a rigorous discovery process to gather data on an organization’s workforce, from hiring and retention policies and practices to overall workforce culture.

Conducting surveys, self-assessments, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, document reviews, and a communications audit, the team then analyzes the findings and develops an action plan. Data management, recruitment, retention, and policy strategies are then implemented in a framework unique to each organization’s capacity. Targeted services include consulting and coaching sessions, options for new products such as realistic job previews and public service announcements, a customized recruiting plan, employee training and development, and more.

Already at crisis levels, turnover and vacancy rates worsened when the pandemic began and remain in emergency status. Early in 2020, the Institute quickly partnered with the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals to initiate the largest-ever survey of the direct support workforce as it navigated the global pandemic. That report, and subsequent follow-up reports, documented increases in already-high turnover rates, job stress, and risk that DSPs have taken on during this emergency, raising public awareness about the necessity of these professionals and advocating for higher wages and other benefits.

Almost half of DSPs leave their jobs within the first year, and most within the first six months. Vacancy rates remain high, and demand for services is growing fast, particularly as more people with disabilities move from congregate care facilities to community-based service options. Staff shortages affect the quality and availability of essential services for individuals with disabilities, and greatly determine whether those individuals will participate fully in their communities.  

Amidst these dire national trends, ICI has a long track record of expertise in assisting people with disabilities and their families find and retain quality DSPs, and in elevating the skills and professionalism in the field as it evolves. Across nearly every U.S. state and several regions abroad, the Institute has provided technical assistance, training, evaluation, and consultation to government agencies and provider organizations. ICI researchers have authored and edited hundreds of publications, including textbooks, reports, magazines, briefs, and newsletters.  

More than 90 peer-reviewed journal articles have been published since 2012, and DirectCourse, the premiere online training curriculum for direct support workforce developed by ICI with partner Elsevier, has trained millions of DSPs, improving the quality and stability of supports for people with disabilities.

ICI also has produced award-winning films bringing attention to the underappreciated and underfunded work of DSPs. Among them are Invaluable: The Unrecognized Profession of Direct Support, Direct Support: A Realistic Job Preview, and Higher Ground: The Dedication of Direct Support Professionals During and After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita 

Frontline Initiative, a newsletter covering issues important to DSPs and their supervisors, is produced by ICI and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals, a longtime partner.

“They have, over decades, provided the tools for advocacy and change that result in measurable solutions,” NADSP President Joe Macbeth said of ICI’s team. “Using their research-based methods, ICI supports organizations in developing effective strategies that address long-standing workforce challenges.”

To learn more, visit Direct Support Workforce Solutions at dsworkforcesolutions.com .