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Jun 9, 2021

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Employment retention for VR Staff has been challenging for many agencies, Host Carol Pankow sits down with Kristen Mackay, Director of Arizona Combined, and Cynthia Speight, Director of North Carolina Blind, to talk about how the newly revamped Operations and Personnel committee for CSAVR and are embarking on some further work to tackle this issue of recruitment and retention.


  • What does employment retention look like in your agencies? Have you found it challenging to get and KEEP really good Staff?
  • What cool things is your agency doing to select and retain top talent?
  • How has recruitment and retention been different for your agency during this pandemic?
  • What mistakes did you make in the past with recruitment and retention that drive the way you approach recruitment and retention today?
  • What are your hopes for the future with the work of your committee?
  • Turnover may be as high as 60% every year; what stories are you hearing and what do you think is driving this high turnover?


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Full Transcript:

Episode 2

Speaker1: [00:00:02] Manager MINUTE brought to you by the VRTAC for quality management conversations powered by V.R., one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host, Carol Pankow


Carol: [00:00:18] Well, ladies, welcome to the show. I am so excited that we have Kristen Mackey, director of Arizona combined, and Cynthia Speight director of North Carolina Blind. Kristen, I have to start with you. Thanks so much for the great conversation last month. And I know I said I would not be contacting you for a show for a little while, but you are a part of so many initiatives. I just had to reach out for this month's topic. So how are you doing?


Kristen: [00:00:44] Well, thank you. I need a coffee or something for the double duty. Two months in a row, people are going to get tired of hearing about me.


Carol: [00:00:51] I know I owe you Starbucks or something when I get to see you in the fall, I hope. Yes.


Kristen: [00:00:56] Yes, for sure. I'll take you up on it now.


Carol: [00:00:58] To you, my friend, Miss Cynthia, how goes it in the great state of North Carolina?


Cynthia: [00:01:03] Well, I want in on the coffee deal, but yeah. Yeah, yeah. Things are just crazy. That's crazy.


Carol: [00:01:12] Now I'm willing to bribe you both with coffee. Some good coffee when we get together hopefully in Savannah. And Savannah in the fall will be super awesome. Sounds good. Today we're going to tackle the topic of staff recruitment and retention. In industries all over the country, recruitment and retention has remained a hot button issue because let's face it, the work can't get done if there's no one here to do the work and it's no different for VR. I sincerely believe the greatest power of VR is its people. But I feel like VR talks so much about employment retention for our customers served without addressing this great big elephant in the room, which is employment retention for our staff. And that has been so challenging for many agencies. I still remember co-chairing the CSAVR Human Resources Development Committee, with you, Cynthia, and we were seeing issues popping up five or six years ago and we were conducting surveys back then with states on counselor retention issues. I know I was facing those issues at my agency at Minnesota as well. We had found three trends at that time. The field was different than what new counselors expected. Longer term counselor didn't like the new WIOA requirements, and we were finding the VA and private rehab, paid more and had more flexibility with work hours in a work life balance, although that might have changed now with the pandemic. So now both you and Kristen are co-chairing the newly revamped Operations and Personnel Committee for CSAVR and are embarking on some further work to tackle this issue. So, Kristen, what is the current work that you two are up to?


Kristen: [00:02:45] So I'll speak a little bit to the salary schedule. We did a survey of the directors and we really wanted to see what is the salary level being offered to counselors across the nation. I know when I started as a director, I was searching for information like this and there was a previous survey that had gone out. But it was I think it was in 2016 perhaps. And so we wanted to update that information. So it was probably building on the great work that you and Cynthia had done prior. And so we did update that salary repository. So that's available for the directors to take a look at and see what levels of staff are in each agency, how much each agency is paying across the nation, and really just to be able to provide that backdrop so that if administrators are looking at trying to get an increased wage for their staff, what is the national salary look like? And you can compare that to national salary to your local economies and really make a good case for why we should pay people better to do this important work.


Carol: [00:03:46] So did you get a good response rate for that survey?


Kristen: [00:03:49] I think we had fifty. Remind me, I think it is about fifty. Seventy five percent of the directors reached out and provided information. So yes, we did. I'm going to say we smashed the record from 2016. We were able to get a lot more directors to respond this time around. So very thankful for the input from the directors.


Cynthia: [00:04:06] You didn't tell her that we badgered them after our pilot on retention and recruitment.



Carol: [00:04:17] Yes. So Cynthia, what's going on with that?


Cynthia: [00:04:19] So we have a couple of things going on with that. We sent out to directors, actually a survey, I don't know, maybe a month or two ago that we wanted their perspective on proven strategies for recruitment and retention. And we also ask a few extra questions in there. And we got a pretty good response. I think it was maybe twenty seven directors or states, rather, responded. And then there were a few others that we knew had taken a look at it. And so, yes, we did browbeat them and asked them to go back to pull it back up as it. OK, we know you still need to finish it, and they were kind enough to do that, but there's still an opportunity if directors will hear this podcast. Want to go back and provide us that information. We would greatly appreciate it would be very helpful to us. So you need to reach out to Kristen or myself to let us know so we can get it reopened and sent directly to them for the input. And then another thing we're doing that we're excited about is a pilot study. And that pilot study is going to be focused on retention. And it's two phases to it. The first phase will involve telephone interviews with a few randomly selected our counselors with the states who are agreeing to participate with us.


Cynthia: [00:05:48] And the whole purpose of the telephone interviews were randomly selected counselors is to give them the opportunity to be very transparent. And that's what we're hoping for with us, is share their perspective about what's important to them, what factors contribute to either their decision to stay with VR state agencies or to leave. And the interviews are going to be conducted by our partners from the University of Pennsylvania who are helping us with this study. And we chose to go about it that way. And thankfully, they agreed, because we really do want counselors to feel free, uninhibited and honest in their responses. We need to know. And then the second part to that is going to involve counselors completing an online survey. Take about ten minutes and they'll just be answering questions about their satisfaction with their employment, what state they are in. You know, are you happy with the level of compensation? We know what else is going to be is never going to be enough caseload size. We probably know what that was going to be too many. But anyway, we're going to ask those kinds of questions, client contact, work, relationships, whatever. And of course, we're excited about both projects. And we will be sharing our results with the membership


Carol: [00:07:00] On super cool. So, Cynthia, if somebody is listening and they want to get involved with that pilot, what should they do?


Cynthia: [00:07:07] Easy peasy. We welcome as many of our programs that are interested in participating as they are to get involved and get engaged. And all they have to do is just reach out to myself by email or to Kristen. And so my email is  And Did I get it right Kristen?


Kristen: [00:07:42] Yes, you did ma'am. Thank you.


Carol: [00:07:43] That was awesome. You do all the alphabet.


Cynthia: [00:07:47] Right. And most of the time when I'm spelling my last name, I just go and spell out the number eight because people want to say in all sorts of craziness though.


Carol: [00:07:58] Yeah, that is great. Oh my gosh. So I know you guys are probably hearing lots of stories and I know I've heard from different agency directors that we're talking about their turnover rate being as high as 60 percent every year. And so I just wonder, Kristen, what stories are you hearing?


Kristen: [00:08:15] You know, I hear the high numbers. I know for myself in tracking hours, you worried about 12 to twenty two percent over the last six to twelve months. And so, you know, even when you consider your 60 percent is incredible. I don't know how you even manage to do good work with clients when you have turnover to that rate. Twelve percent. Twenty five percent is difficult to manage as well. So much time is spent in onboarding and teaching and really getting the culture of your program and how you want your clients to be received and treated. All of that work from supervisor training department peers. It's just a ton of work that goes into onboarding. And so when you are spending so much time constantly revamping that and bringing on new people, it's really the outcomes for the clients are being impacted negatively. So it's really a critical problem that needs to be addressed. And so trying to figure out what is the what is the root cause here for why are people leaving in droves? And I think really that's what this survey is about to figure out. What can what is the real I think we anecdotally know and having this pilot study by people that are data minded, I like to say I'm a wannabe data geek because I really like the data, but I don't have that background.


Kristen: [00:09:44] And so having the professionals, if you will, do that research for us, will really hopefully give us some insight into what is causing that kind of mass movement. Ouch. Anecdotally, we hear too much data. You know, more. Management and counseling, I've had a lot of conversations with others about why WIOA isn't new, we know what the data requirements are. How can we, as we are director shift or service delivery model, do we need to shift our staffing model to be able to accommodate for those now more remote data entry case management activities and free up the time for our counselors to be able to do what they want to do and what they should be doing and counseling and doing that career information with our client. So really taking a look at what is our case, what is our staffing model need to do in order to shift to accommodate now the new requirements? I say new right and air quotes, air quality, you know, but how can we accommodate the requirements that we now have with the staffing that we have, but we may need to shift responsibilities. So those are some of the conversations I've been having internally and, you know, as we talk in different groups.


Carol: [00:11:03] So, Cynthia, do you think the pandemic has impacted this in any way? So maybe the turnover is not quite as high. Just wondered if you're hearing anything from your colleagues around the country regarding that.


Cynthia: [00:11:17] Sure. So first, I want to know what Kristen, just in response to that other question, I have read somewhere where it was announced that about 30 percent of the current workforce intend to leave the employment within the next year. And that is alarming, especially with all of that investment we put into onboarding and training staff. I'm also envious of Kristen’s turnover rate because for our division we are at 20.., it was around twenty five percent. And what I'm also hearing is that it isn't even just the issue of turnover. States are struggling with just recruitment and have shared that, you know. Qualified staff, and most, if not all of us are trying to ensure having a diverse workforce, and that's a big challenge in states as well. So it's just a challenge, challenge, challenge everywhere. So the for the response to your question about the impact of the pandemic, you know, in our division, I can't say that I've seen and I don't even have data to support my response. So I apologize for that. But I can't say that I've necessarily seen an impact, but I can say is attributed directly to the pandemic. I will say staff have enjoyed being able to telework. I will say that positions in areas that have been difficult to fill continue to be difficult to fill during the pandemic. But I believe and I have absolutely no data back to something to say, but I believe that. We did not lose. Perhaps as many counselors doing the pandemic as we were before, and again, perhaps it because I don't have my data to back it up, but here it is.


Carol: [00:13:37] I've been hearing that, too. I mean, I just I've talked to a few folks in there like this last year at least, it slowed down the spigot of people just flowing out of the agencies. So maybe that curtailed it for a while, but they aren't sure it's going to stay like that. That's going to the depend, you know, especially depending on the return to work kind of plans that agencies have. Right. So we've been talking a little bit about national perspective and you both have been talking a little bit about what's going on in your agencies. So have you found it really challenging to get and keep really good staff? And I'll shoot that one to you Kristen. Do you?


Kristen: [00:14:18] First, we did a recent look at our demographics, and we have very tenured staff and we have either very, very tenured staff here, 20, 30, 40 year staff, counselors, and we have brand new staff, one to three years, not a whole lot in between. So it has been challenging. You know, once we get them to kind of 10 years, then, you know, the 10 year mark seems to be where people are just like, yep, I'm dedicated. I have a passion for this job. I am going to do this work. I kind of regardless of all of you, what state V.R. doesn't provide to me, you know, but that younger generation, the new folks coming in, that's really where our challenge has been to get them engaged and really seize the opportunities that are there for them to become, you know, kind of lifers. That doesn't sound nice, but, you know, really in the state of our workforce for a long time, and that's where we're focused now. We are in a rapidly evolving technology world and we have been as a state agency. I'll speak for Arizona, slow to adapt to those things. And I think if we were better at bringing on some of these technologies, that we would be able to connect with those younger generation counselors coming right out of school a little bit more quickly and really get them to be involved. And we're trying to do other opportunities, such as an advisory panel. So we're going to bring out a new process and we're going to tap these folks in our advisory panel to test it for us and give us their feedback and let us know, is it working? Isn't it working? What would you tweak? So giving them a sense of involvement in the community and the agency as a whole to help really kind of ground them in the V.R. State Service work.


Carol: [00:16:04] So something you said, Kristen, makes me think about you. Cynthia, I remember when you were first having staff go home and technology was this big issue. You were like, we don't even have laptops for people. And so I wondered what's been going on with you and any challenges you're having in helping to keep good staff.


Cynthia: [00:16:22] Ok, so pat myself on the back. You can see me do that right now. But I'm patting myself back because one of my goals had been to equip all of our staff with laptops, docking stations so that they could, in fact, regardless of the circumstances, whether the pandemic or here in North Carolina, air quotes what we call bad weather, which might be a dusting of snow because we don't get it. But in any event, in any situation where working onsite is not possible. And so we achieve that goal for staff who did not have the equipment to work remotely and that everyone from counselors and specialists to administrative support staff have now been equipped with those technologies. We have purchased virtual conferencing platforms that got approved by private security. All the support staff have been provided training and some train on their own and how to use it. So I think we're in such a much better position now than we were in March 2020. I'm really excited about that. And staff are too.


Carol: [00:17:33] Say, well, that is super awesome. I know I talked to both of you and you were both really helpful when we did our remote supervision training. I had talked to you about all the different practices and really cool things that you had going on in your states that helped with that whole remote supervision. So I just wondered if there are any cool things going that that you're doing in addition to anything else you've mentioned already about selecting and retaining top talent during this pandemic. If you have some other cool practices you've tried or anything else, how about you, Kristen?


Kristen: [00:18:04] I'm you know, I was thinking about just quickly what we've been doing and we've really worked to develop a career ladder and to Cynthia's point, looking to diversify our talent as well. So having a career ladder so you don't have to come in with a master's degree in a CRC in order to be able to work for us. You know, so we have developed a career ladder, which has been a wonderful opportunity we've seen. A lot of his staff really take the opportunity to enhance their training and their certification in order to move up that career ladder and get some more money for the work that they do. We have an agreement to offer some graduate courses to staff. So it's a rolling we determined to get graduate courses we would decide to to offer out to our staff. And that is available to any of our counselors. You know, it's kind of a rolling enrollment cycle. So very excited about that. We do see that our teams, we reimburse for the CRC exam and the renewals. So we offer that opportunity. And then the last thing that we do, I think that helps us is we offer CRC credits to repay the CRC to be able to put in for those credits.


Kristen: [00:19:10] And we actively engage with partners to be able to provide those CRC credits to our staff so that they can maintain their credentials, because that is the pinnacle. That's what we're going for. That's what we want. Every one of our staff ended up in that top tier counselor level. We would be thrilled and so wanting to continue to offer those. I think those have helped. And then quite obviously, the flexible work we had portions of staff that worked in the community and had, you know, shame on us. I hadn't thought about well, gee, is most of our staff could do this. And I talked about this in the last podcast, I think outside of the office. Where can you go? And staff really feel that that is a nice opportunity. And I'm looking forward to being able to offer that a little bit more broadly as the numbers for covid in the pandemic seem to be a little bit more under control.


Carol: [00:19:58] That's excellent. I mean, I feel like you're following along of the big businesses are doing that, too. They're realizing I think I was just reading an article and they were talking about why are people not coming to work or they can't get people. And they said this whole work life balance and flexibility this last year and a half about has taught us that we need to look at that seriously. And Americans just haven't done that before. And I think especially V.R., we were always so like, you got to be in the office. Look, if you're not butts in the chair, you're not doing work. And so I'm excited. You know, it's a drag. The pandemic's been a terrible, devastating thing for many people, but it's open up so many really great opportunities. So how about for you, Cynthia, any kind of cool things going on in your agency, helping with your selecting, retaining staff?


Cynthia: [00:20:43] So for us being services for the blind, our professional staff were never in the office to begin with. We're not concerned with clothes and their workplaces that there's training program size and out in the community. So there were only a maybe two days a week that field staff, as we refer to them, we're actually in the office. And so I guess they've learned to help with this effort is that during the pandemic, the silver lining is that contrary to popular belief, we have found that we can work effectively, remotely, and we just got the thumbs up to begin transitioning our staff back to work on site. But we also have received support from our department to continue to allow telework to some degree. So right now, we're real busy trying to frame that up. And what would that look like for us and our staff? And I stole something from Kristen where she created


Carol [00:21:43 I stole ideas from Kristen all the time


Kristen: [00:21:45] we all steal from each other


Cynthia: [00:21:48] We had created a really great survey just to test the pulse of the staff and how they're feeling about their experience over the year telework and how they feel about the return to work on site. And so we are sending that out to our staff to help us with this plan, because we certainly want to do whatever we can to retain top talent.


Carol: [00:22:15] Well, I would like to see that survey, ladies, because we can share that with other folks across the country. People are asking me all the time about how can I handle like now we're doing the return and we get so many calls I would love. So if one of you all could send it?


Cynthia: [00:22:32] Ok, ok, but can I send it. And then you say it came from me and I did it.


Kristen: [00:22:39] It came from the CSAVR Operations and Personnel Group.


Cynthia: [00:22:43] That's OK.


Carol: [00:22:46] Credit, that would be awesome. So I know that pandemic had really forced us into this trial and error kind of way of life. And I think we often forget sometimes the greatest lessons come from trial and error. And this was the case even before the pandemic. But I just wondered if there's any mistakes you all have made in the past with recruitment, retention that drive the way you approach it today, like kind of those lessons learned. And Cynthia, I'm going to turn to you first on this one.


Cynthia: [00:23:12] Yeah, I would confess to, I guess over time and not necessarily because of the one of the things I've learned for me is that in desperation. Some hard to fill positions, you know how to look at an application and there's a gap in employment or an applicant has responded, no, you may not contact my supervisor in those kinds of things or a bit of a red flag for me. But then there was some good stuff in that application and a person interview. Well, and I was like, well, we got a probationary period. Let's just get mature. That has me. So one thing that I pay very close attention to is discernment. I don't excuse the red flag so readily now because it's important to get a good candidate, even though we have a probationary period with folks who are not already career state employees. The investment we make, as Kristen described before, and bring it on, folks, training up for jobs. You've got to minimize the risk. So I've learned how to do this.


Carol: [00:24:23] That's right. How about you, Kristen?


Kristen: [00:24:25] That's a great point. I know that as a.. I was a new administrator I don't know how long, how long I can keep saying that I've been doing this for four years now. You're done with that now.


Carol: [00:24:33] You're an old administrator.


Kristen: [00:24:36] But I do remember coming in and being feeling like, oh, my goodness, look at this vacancy rate and the teams are struggling and the hiring managers and staff of 500, the hiring managers across the state are just trying to, as you said, it can reach them. But and we really had to analyze that and say, you know what, having a warm seat is not beneficial to anybody. So let's just do our due diligence and really make sure we get the right person in here. The other thing really that we learned also, and this was really hard for my field team to accept, is just because you had a position in a certain place doing a certain thing doesn't mean you have to fill it the exact same way again. And so I really challenge the team to what are your numbers telling you? Where does that position need to go? Do we need to offload it to another office that's more slammed with clients in your offices right now? Do we need to readjust that to be a different kind of position to support your office? And I, quite frankly, and still sometimes challenge with that, you know, a person leaves and they just want to get the same thing right back in there. And so we need to really, you know, again, they want to be data nerd in me. What is your data telling you from your field office and how can you best support your team and your clients? And so that was a big lesson learned in an ongoing lesson for us as our needs continue to shift.


Kristen: [00:25:58] And then the last one that I really feel like when we think about what our lessons learned is that we can be flexible with our business model, our time that people are in the office or out of the office. If they're doing it remotely, are they doing it on site? It was always eight to five. You got to do it during eight to five. You know, now we're where you are really to the greatest extent possible, really trying to flex and see where can we really meet the needs of the community and the clients. And do we have the staff that can meet those needs maybe outside of those eight to five? Right. We know we have to staff the state office location during those state business hours. But if I got eight people in that office, surely we can make that work. Some people starting at seven and ending at three, some people starting at nine and ending later. Right. So just the ability to be flexible while still meeting the business needs was something that we really had not fully explored in the past. And we're forced to do so was a pandemic and really going to continue to do that because it seems to be a really good business model.


Carol: [00:27:03] I think that has been the silver lining of this pandemic. Is that flexibility for sure. I still remember being in talks with our H.R. before I left and just looking at that remote work and everybody's like, oh, you can't because there's going to be so many workers comp situations. And I said, you know, I actually have more workers comp events happening from people walking outside the workforce center, you know, on the icy sidewalks than we do with somebody working from home. But that's all changed now. And I'm also really glad you said about taking a look at those positions. That had been my viewpoint for a long time. If you want to change and get some of the new positions that are really required under WIOA and getting those kind of quality assurance and business specialists and so really analyzing each position and taking a look at it and going, gosh, what else can we do with it or where else is it needed? I love that. I think that's great. So I know we're kind of wrapping up our time shortly, but I wanted to get from both of you what your hopes are for the future with the work of your committee. I know you've got this newly reformed committee. I think it's awesome. I've sat in on the meetings. I'm excited about the work you're doing, but I know each of you has different passions about this. So, Cynthia, I'm going to start with you. What are your hopes for the future, for the work of your committee?


Cynthia: [00:28:16] Yeah, thanks, Carol. I just hope with all my heart that we are able to continue to provide meaningful and useful. Information and resources to the membership to help them with their recruitment, retention personnel matters. Any particular effort that they feel might need to be raised to the membership and perhaps funding partner or is they and others to bring about change in this area. And what I also hope is, you know, we tell them all the time we want to hear from you, but I don't know, we really mean that. So I really hope I really hope that I feel empowered to share and speak up and be brutally honest with us about is what we're doing helpful to you? And if it is it, tell us that and tell us what you mean, because that's what we're here for and that's what we want to do and that's what we want to provide.


Carol: [00:29:15] All that is, if anybody can make that happen, it will be you, Miss Cynthia, for sure.


Cynthia: [00:29:21] Ok, thank you so much.


Carol: [00:29:25] What about you? What are your hopes for the future of the committee?


Kristen: [00:29:28] Know Cynthia said it so well as far


Kristen: [00:29:30] As wanting to hear from the membership. I also want to just really put out there that while we ask a lot, we do we and we badger and give us the info. Right. We recognize the value of the peer membership with other directors and other states. We learn so much from each other. Every one of us is in a slightly different situation, but we generally have many of the same or very similar activities that we're doing. And so we've all developed different proposals and actions and spreadsheets and surveys. And we, when we're asking for things, really value the contributions of each other. And just to understand that it may take an extra 10, 15 minutes or shoot it out to somebody to provide an answer on your team. But that response is so very valuable and just really appreciative of the folks that take the time to do that, because it just adds to the comprehensiveness of the information we're able to share with everybody. And then the other piece of it that I was drawn to and I'm looking at, you know, I was a region rep and region rep should be a part of committee. That really the other part I was drawn to was the data and the actual evaluation of this public V.R. program. So how do we really get our hands around evaluating the program and then looking at what we can do from a continuous improvement lens to continue to make this just such an even better program for the individuals that we serve?


Carol: [00:31:03] Well said. Well said. Well, I'm so glad you two have each other on this committee work. I think you're in the right spot to really lead this work across the country. It's going to help so many agencies really excited to hear about what you do. And I know I have to invite you back later on, even though now, Kristen I won't do it now

Later on to hear the results of the pilot and all that information and be so fun to talk about it. Can't wait. I appreciate you both joining me today in the studio. And I just wish you the very best of luck.


Kristen: [00:31:34] Thank you.


Cynthia: [00:31:34] Thank you so much. We appreciate you, too. And all the work you've always done on behalf of the public, your programs, and you keep doing even in your new fancy. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


Both conversations powered by VR. One manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR attack on quality management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple podcast, Google podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.