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Supporting people with disabilities is rewarding work, and it’s among the nation’s fastest-growing occupations, but the direct-support profession’s low pay and considerable demands are associated with crisis-level labor shortages that are lowering the quality of life of the people with disabilities that DSPs support. Without major changes in how organizations recruit, train, and support these professionals, the problem will only worsen.

Collaborating with state officials and provider organizations across Tennessee, the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) is conducting annual surveys of local wages, benefits, and retention efforts; developing a customized toolkit for organizations to use in recruiting and retaining DSPs; and providing coaching to organizations as they implement the toolkit. The tools include videos with realistic portrayals of a typical day for a DSP that have been effective in recruiting candidates who will stay longer on the job and who view the work as a profession.

“Working with TennCare and Tennessee Community Organizations (TNCO) is allowing us to apply our evidence-based expertise to a broad network of organizations across the state, creating promising strategies for strengthening the pool of DSPs,” said ICI’s Heidi Eschenbacher, principal investigator for the project, known as the TennCare Employment and Community First CHOICES Workforce Initiative. “Partial implementation of a strategy can lead to organizations concluding it failed, but our teams will work closely with organizations throughout the process, guiding selection and implementation of the hiring and retention tools that work best in each organization.”

Now beginning the second of the three-year project, ICI’s Research Training Center on Community Living shortly will launch a second annual survey as a way to measure short-term progress and expand it to a second cohort of organizations, said Barb Kleist, co-principal investigator. 

In September, ICI Executive Director Amy Hewitt, also a co-principal investigator, and TennCare’s Shannon Nehus kicked off the first workshops for participating organizations, along with a team of ICI staff that included Kleist, Claire Benway, Chet Tchetter, Julie Kramme, Sarah Hall, and MacDonald Metzger. In total, fifteen ICI staff members are working on the project. 

Readers can inquire directly about the broader project.