U.S. governmental public health workforce shrank by half in five years, study finds

March 8, 2023—Nearly half of all employees in state and local public health agencies in the U.S. left their jobs between 2017 and 2021, and if such workforce contractions continue, more than 100,000 public health staff could leave their jobs by 2025, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study—the first to look at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the size and composition of the governmental public health workforce—was published in Health Affairs on March 6, 2023. Co-authors included Elena Savoia, principal research scientist, and Rachael Piltch-Loeb, research scientist, both in the Department of Biostatistics; and Howard Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership.

The analysis used data from the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey conducted in 2017 and 2021. Researchers compared responses from 2017 from governmental public health workers regarding their intent to leave or retire with actual data on how many left their jobs through 2021. The co-authors also considered how demographic factors such as employee age, experience, and region correlated with decisions to leave jobs or stay at them.

The researchers found that 46% of all employees in state and local public health agencies left their jobs during the five-year study period. Resigning was particularly common among younger staff: 75% of employees ages 35 or younger or with shorter tenures left their jobs. The co-authors speculated that pandemic-related challenges facing public health workers—including criticism, harassment, and personal threats—likely fueled the hefty job exodus.

If the current rate of attrition in the governmental public workforce continues, it could translate to a potential loss of 129,000 workers over the next two years, the study found.

“Given the likelihood of increasing outbreaks and future global pandemics, recruitment and retention must be prioritized, especially for younger staff, who represent the future of the public health workforce,” the researchers wrote. They recommended steps such as improving educational access, modernizing talent acquisition, improving workplace culture, training existing workers, addressing student debt, and improving systems to monitor and track workforce trends over time.

Read the study: The Exodus Of State And Local Public Health Employees: Separations Started Before And Continued Throughout COVID-19