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Mental health agency serving rural Minnesota turns to ‘out of the box’ ideas to ease workforce shortage

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Greater Minnesota Family Services is keenly feeling the pinch: many mental health workforce needs and not enough workers. In one community, the agency has been advertising for a therapist for two years. In all that time, "we hav...

WILLMAR, Minn. -- Greater Minnesota Family Services is keenly feeling the pinch: many mental health workforce needs and not enough workers.

In one community, the agency has been advertising for a therapist for two years. In all that time, “we have gotten no applications,” said George Dubie, executive director. “That says so much to me.”

As a result, the community-based mental health provider agency has begun turning to more creative approaches to attracting and retaining qualified staff. As Dubie puts it, “We’re going to try to do some things out of the box. It won’t solve everything, but I think we can make a dent.”

Similar issues with the mental health workforce can be found across rural Minnesota, where most counties contain federally designated health professional shortage areas for mental health. Earlier this year the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners heard about a shrinking supply of therapists with whom the county can contract to provide in-home services.

Greater Minnesota Family Services is a microcosm of this shortage and its impact -- and of home-grown efforts to try to reverse the trend.

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The agency started small in the early 1990s with just five employees. It now has nearly 200 staff in 35 rural Minnesota counties, providing services to at-risk youths and families in home and school settings. It also provides shelter care and operates 10 early childhood sites.

There are lots of success stories, Dubie said. With timely intervention, youths have a better chance of staying in school, staying out of the criminal justice system and remaining with their families, he said. “When we can reach more children on the softer side of things, we have fewer kids going into the harder side of things.”

It’s a service that is needed in rural Minnesota, Dubie said. “We are rural Minnesota. That is our mission,” he said. “We have been lucky that we do have good staff.”

But when it comes to workforce needs, being rural is one of the agency’s most difficult hurdles to overcome. The problem is compounded by a shrinking pool of younger mental health professionals to replace those who retire.

In the 1990s, Greater Minnesota Family Services could advertise for human service professionals, get 25 to 30 resumes and interview five or six candidates, Dubie said.

These days the agency averages 25 to 30 open positions at any given time, and ads can run for one to two years before a position is filled. Dubie estimates the applicant pool has been shrinking 5 percent a year for the past five years.

He said he hears regularly from the staff about unmet needs. “They have children who are at risk who are not getting served,” he said.

The difficulty in recruiting staff also hampers the agency’s ability to launch new programs, Dubie said. At one point he wanted to open a counseling center but couldn’t hire enough qualified staff, forcing him to eventually abandon the project.

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Recognizing that its former tried-and-true recruitment strategies were no longer delivering results, the agency has turned to new strategies.

Personal connections have become important tools, Dubie said. Although word-of-mouth referrals have always been encouraged among the staff, this is being emphasized even more, he said. “We talk a lot to our staff about recruiting colleagues.”

He estimates that about half of new hires at Greater Minnesota Family Services now stem from employee referrals.

Agency representatives have begun traveling to colleges and universities in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota to talk to psychology and human services classes about careers and to connect with students as they make decisions about where to go after they graduate. Similar outreach also is starting with high school graduates.

It’s generating results and will be a key strategy going forward, Dubie said. “We’re going to be spending as much on being out there as we will on advertising,” he said.

More recently, Greater Minnesota Family Services launched a partnership with the Adler Graduate School in Richfield, which trains postgraduates in counseling and psychotherapy and offers postgraduate licensure options and certification in specialty areas.

The arrangement will allow current staff to advance their education and fill some of the harder-to-recruit positions, especially those that require a master’s degree or beyond. In turn, Greater Minnesota Family Services will provide opportunities for clinical training and internships.

Early results have been promising, Dubie said. About 10 employees have signed up to further their education, and he’s had inquiries from four or five prospective job candidates attracted by the access to further training.

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“It’s just been a wonderful partnership. It’s working out really well,” he said.

He figures that if the new strategies result in five new Greater Minnesota Family Services employees in five years, 200 at-risk families will gain access to services.

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