Campus & Community

New Study Highlights Work Experiences and Career Needs of Massachusetts Human Services Workers who are Foreign-born and People of Color

A study commissioned by four Commonwealth nonprofit human services agencies is offering new insights into the work experiences and career development needs of human services workers who are foreign-born or people of color.

The study, “Pathways to Leadership Among Foreign-Born and Native-Born Human Services Workers: Equity and Inclusion,” was conducted by the Simmons University’s School of Social Work in partnership with the African Bridge Network. It was commissioned by Bay Cove Human Services, HMEA, Thrive Support and Advocacy, and Venture Community Services.

“At Bay Cove, we consider the diversity of our workforce to be one of our greatest strengths as an agency,” said Bill Sprague, President and CEO of Bay Cove Human Services. “This survey of foreign-born employees and employees of color is crucially important to us, and our co-sponsoring organizations, as we strive to provide equal opportunities for professional advancement to all of those doing such vital work every day for the people we serve. During this critical time in America, we, like so many other organizations and institutions, are committed to listening—the feedback in this survey will be of immeasurable assistance in helping us make Bay Cove a more inclusive and equitable agency for all.”  

The study outlines a variety of findings that provide a deeper look at the experiences of these workers. About 90 percent of respondents are individuals of color, and a significant portion identifies as foreign-born. First, foreign-born and people of color human service workers report a lack of mentoring and professional development/training, along with fewer opportunities to access a career ladder and economic growth in their work experiences.

“The study provides us with the framework to help drive the conversation to have a meaningful, tangible impact on how we engage and grow employees within our workplace and the community” Michelle Donohue, VP of Human Resources at HMEA. “HMEA will respond by providing clear career paths, strong mentoring opportunities, and increased skills training to break down structural barriers.”

As we make our way through and beyond this pandemic, we must consider how we can level the playing field and ensure these workers have opportunities to learn, train and progress in their careers.
- Hugo Kamya, Ph.D., MSW

Significant salary disparities also exist because of the foreign education and work credentials of the immigrant workforce are often discounted. Rates of compensation are low for all direct care staff in human services, with many employees being eligible for similar benefits to the clients they serve. About 90 percent of respondents are individuals of color, and a significant portion identifies as foreign-born. 

“Venture is grateful for the opportunity to participate in this project as a way of ensuring that foreign born employees and employees of color always have the opportunity to grow and advance their careers in this incredibly important industry,” said Pam Sampson, Chief Program Officer at Venture.

According to the study, 60 percent of the workers have been with their organizations for at least three years. Despite a strong reported commitment to their clients, many workers reported feeling pressure to produce combined with a lack of appreciation by management. Workers also identified concerns about racism and bias. 

“Many immigrants and people of color are employed in the human services industry, but a lack of professional development, low compensation and a lack of diversity at senior management levels has resulted in a turnover and lowered productivity,” said Emmanuel Owusu, executive director of the African Bridge Network, Inc. “As the industry grapples with looming labor shortages, these four employers are been being thoughtful and proactive about how they retain, train and engage their employees. Other employers in the industry can learn from their initiative to support their untapped talent, those who are foreign-born or people of color who represented a majority of the workforce in this industry to understand their career development needs and adopt strategies to support their growth. This study shows that a commitment to diversity and inclusion at all levels can have real implications that makes organizations more effective, welcoming and productive.”

The study also identifies several focus areas that can help organizations address the disparities and challenges facing foreign-born and people of color workers. This includes ongoing greater advocacy for contract funding so that human services employers can offer salaries comparable to those offered at state agencies performing for similar jobs. In addition, racial equity should be a focus, and organizations and their partners should explore ways to build more inclusive and equitable workplaces. 

“Though these workers have often been with their organizations for an extended period of time and have a strong commitment to their clients, they often struggle to make ends meet,” said Simmons University Professor Johnnie Hamilton-Mason, Ph.D., MSW, one of the principal investigators of the study. “Many human services workers have been faced with a choice between their lives or livelihoods during this pandemic. It’s vital that we adopt new strategies to increase equity for these workers who have and will continue to play a critical role in caring for vulnerable populations.”

Future collaborative partnerships should also focus on pathways and stackable credentials of value to increase leadership roles and salaries among these workers, implementing new training to increase leadership opportunities, and creating a mentoring program that utilizes apprenticeship initiatives to advance racial equity. Organizations should also develop strategies to monitor and track their progress on these efforts. 

“Frontline human services workers are the very people who face added risk of COVID-19 exposure in their workplaces potentially putting their families at risk,” said Simmons University Professor Hugo Kamya, Ph.D., MSW, one of the study’s principal investigators. “When workers were asked what keeps them going at their jobs, almost everyone stated that it is the strong commitment they have to their clients. As we make our way through and beyond this pandemic, we must consider how we can level the playing field and ensure these workers have opportunities to learn, train and progress in their careers.”

Almost 300 individuals participated in the study, including 41 who participated in focus groups and another 247 that responded to an online survey.

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