A Personal Look at Working in the Human Services Sector

Labor Day is the day we celebrate the social and economic achievements of the workers in this country and there are few better deserving of that praise than those employed in the human services sector. They provide an incredible array of services that reach a vast number of people each year- all with endless passion and patience.

Growing up the daughter of a social worker, the value of public service and helping others was instilled in me from an early age. I began my career as an assistant teacher at a preschool, hoping to make a significant impact in the lives of children at a pivotal time in their development. Despite my strong interest in education, I soon found myself frustrated by insufficient pay, a cap on my hours at 35 –  instead of 40 – depriving me of full time benefits, and the high rate of turnover at the school as many of the most talented teachers left their positions after only a few years (some even after just one) to pursue more lucrative endeavors. I did not realize at the time that this experience had prepared me for understanding the challenges faced by the entire nonprofit sector. Since leaving that profession myself, I switched gears and have spent the majority of my time interning with nonprofit organizations. However, as I see many of my peers graduating from law school, entering technology and engineering fields and generally building stable, professional lives for themselves, I find myself with some concerns about my choice of future profession.

The stereotype of life at a nonprofit is that you’ll be exhausted and you’ll never make any money but at least you’ll love what you do. There is some truth to that. The sector recurrently has problems offering competitive salaries and benefits to attract and promote young talent which can lead to high rates of employee turnover- 57% of those who left the sector cited compensation as the premier factor in their exit.1 Although the big win of the 15 and Funding campaign to get the New York State minimum wage raised to $15 per hour represents a move in the right direction, government has not augmented funding in human services contracts (15 and Funding) accordingly. This has the potential of leaving organizations without the resources required to execute the raise and forcing them to downsize and/or cut programs.2 In 2015, the New York City Council approved a 2.5% Cost of Living Adjustment (half of the amount advocated for by the Human Services Council) for workers with government contracts but with no provision for a perennial adjustment to keep up with inflation. Over a year later, many of the challenges in implementation have not been resolved resulting in many organizations waiting for funding.3

But much of this is caused or at the very least aggravated by what is possibly the largest contribution to nonprofits’ financial struggle- late and often completely underfunded contracts with government from which many nonprofits are paid only 80 cents on the dollar.4 Last year in New York City alone, fewer than 30% of government contracts were paid on time- a significant rise from only 13% in 2014.5 The lack of increase in funding for OTPS leaves many unable to make well overdue repairs to their infrastructure, pay for their rent and program supplies, and conduct crucial staff development trainings.6 How can organizations be expected to simply stay above water let alone provide services to the millions of people they support each year when their predominant source of revenue is inconsistent at best, and frequently overlooked or excluded entirely from political action, discourse, and platforms?

As a young person entering the job market, I want to know that wherever I choose to work will offer me ample opportunities to learn and to grow but this appears harder to find than one might think. Two thirds of workers in my age group are planning on leaving their current jobs by 2020, many even seeing themselves elsewhere within the year.7 A dearth of staff development, mentoring initiatives and employee retention strategies (frequently due to the aforementioned unreliable funding that might otherwise be put towards such initiatives) are cited as increasingly problematic by both employees and organizations. The advancement stagnation this results in perpetuates the high turnover at every stratum- at the lower levels, a reported 51% of organizations cited keeping entry level staff as their greatest retention issue8 and at higher management levels, internal promotion only represents 30% of appointments at nonprofit organizations.9 There is no way for this to be remedied without the attention and support of government.

I, of course, have specific human services and social justice issues I am personally inspired by and particular kinds of positions in which I can see myself performing best. But first and foremost I want to work somewhere that acknowledges my skills and my potential. I want to work somewhere that is dedicated to my advancement; dedicated to the support of its workers in a career climate that all too often sees their staff as expendable. My time at the Human Services Council has been a perfect example of that. The values I see reflected in the guiding principles and goals of human services client work- respect, self-determination, importance of community and creation of change from within- are indistinguishable from those I desire in my future place of employment. Those values, the commitment to public service and betterment of individuals, communities or society at large, are exactly what I hope to spend the rest of my working life espousing and I am confident in the ability of the sector to continue strengthening themselves while they strengthen the world.

By Caitlin Orzeck-Byrnes


1 http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_nonprofit_leadership_development_deficit

2 http://www.nyaprs.org/e-news-bulletins/2016/014855.cfm


4 http://www.humanservicescouncil.org/Commission/HSCCommissionReport.pdf

5 https://www.osc.state.ny.us/contracts/reports/2015/pcl_report.pdf

6 http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/connecting-the-dots-on-nonprofit-underfunding.html

7 http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/gx-millennials-one-foot-out-the-door.html#report

8 http://www.nonprofithr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/2013-Employment-Trends-Survey-Report.pdf

9 Thomas J. Tierney, The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit, The Bridgespan Group, 2006, p. 17. The Bridgespan Group’s June 2015 “Leadership Development Deficit Survey” received replies from 438 nonprofit senior leaders. Jean Martin, “For Senior Leaders, Fit Matters More than Skill,” Harvard Business Review, January 17, 2014.


About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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