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Finding out just what 'human services' means

I've never thought about entering the human services field before as a possible career.  But after competing with other grad students in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' (DHS) Case Competition Nov. 6-9, I would definitely consider it.
I had never even heard of this competition until DHS presented it to my class at the H. John Heinz III College at Carnegie Mellon University in October, where I am a first-semester student in the Master of Science in Public Policy and Management program.
The competition, funded by local foundations, challenged several teams to devise better ways to attract and retain a human services workforce for the 21st century. Joining me on my team were three women: students from Duquesne University's School of Law, Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health and its School of Social Work.
So often people look at public policy issues and there appears to be gridlock – whatever problem they're faced with appears to be unsolvable. That's why it's so valuable to get outside perspectives from people who don't see why things need to be the way they are, or who see multiple solutions instead of none. It was great that this competition was tapping people from diverse backgrounds.
We had to choose to focus on attracting workers who had one of several attributes – they were either talented, engaged, or diverse – and between frontline workers and those in leadership positions. We chose the first angle in both categories.
To begin the challenge, the teams gathered at DHS headquarters to examine no less than 42 slides of background information, definitions, challenges we needed to address, necessary considerations, restrictions, and what we needed to include in our plans.  It was only the beginning of an onslaught of information we would parse over the next two days, including reports, websites, job listings and spreadsheets provided to us as additional resources.
Immediately following the presentation, my team met to make sense of all the information and to determine what approach we would take. In previous years, DHS has challenged teams to tackle issues such as improving the experiences of individuals living with serious mental illnesses, narrowing the achievement gap for students receiving DHS services in Pittsburgh Public Schools, and positioning DHS as a leader in the environmental sustainability movement.
As we started our discussion, it was clear that we were each a little disappointed with the topic. Why couldn’t we have been challenged to end homelessness, or reduce child abuse? These are the kinds of issues DHS workers face. These are the kinds of issues we are passionate about. But instead of focusing on solutions to those, we had to think about the importance of workforce recruitment, professional development, and job satisfaction.
So we moved ahead, and the next day we met in the early afternoon to share findings and ideas we had brainstormed in our time apart. That's when I found out that coming from different backgrounds and experiences was very useful for brainstorming but made it a little difficult when it came to refining the issues and presenting our idea. We each approached the challenge in different ways, reaching lots of dead ends, and had to start over often. 
Finally, while we were trying to determine precisely what “talented” means, we looked into how DHS defines it:  workers who are experts, innovative, adaptive and proud of their work. It was a Eureka moment, and we decided to see where it would take us.
For the rest of the day and late into the night, we came up with a strengths-based approach based on our philosophy that skillful workers want to work for a highly skilled organization, innovative workers want to work for an innovative organization, and so on. We called our plan “Putting the Spotlight on Talent” and focused on how DHS could share with prospective employees just how proud of its work, and of its skilled, innovative and adaptive employees, DHS could be.
On the final day of preparation, we looked for any research out there that we could graph, chart and analyze. It wasn’t long before we realized that such data was not available. We had been hoping to mine and crunch it, making clever infographics and impressing the judges with a cutting-edge presentation, but all we had to base our strategy on was our own experiences and opinions.
We recommended hosting a competition to redesign the DHS logo; selecting front-line ambassadors who would represent DHS at career events, in promotional materials and for workshops or community outreach; creating opportunities for cross-training so workers could spend part of their time training in another area to become more knowledgeable about the broad range of services DHS provides; and integrating all of the job listings within DHS and its contractors into a single database.
We finished putting the ideas into our presentation and executive summary by around 1 a.m. Saturday, and were back at DHS headquarters again before 8 a.m. to present them to the judges. We went first, presenting our strategy for more than 20 minutes, then answered questions for another 10.
Unfortunately, we did not make it into the final round. But I stayed to watch and was very impressed by the wide range of strategies other teams had devised. One group proposed creating a shared learning system that would act as a skill-sharing database. Another proposed a Pittsburgh Promise Pipeline that would start recruitment efforts in Pittsburgh Public Schools and have a number of internship opportunities for those students to stay connected and eventually work for DHS after college. Yet a third group proposed a plan for a competitive sabbatical program that would allow employees to take some time away to learn from a related organization.
The winning team proposed a system they called the Leadership Ladder that would provide opportunities for professional development and mentoring, giving employees points if they pursued those opportunities. Their presentation was just as impressive as their idea, including data from a survey they conducted, compelling personal stories and anecdotes from interviews.
Our team hadn’t fully realized it while we were preparing for the competition, but during the presentations it became clear that we were the people DHS wanted as workers, and that the only research we really needed was our own experience and insight.  Looking back, it’s clear that creativity, communication, teamwork and a deep understanding of the issue were the main drivers of success – not data analysis or clever infographics, but a personal touch.
I was amazed at the diversity of strategies that the teams came up with, and the passion we had each developed for our ideas in such a short time. It’s inspiring to see the drive to make an impact play out in such interdisciplinary collaboration, even when it’s an impact you didn’t think you were interested in having. It gives me hope, and it challenges me to keep considering how more people can be encouraged to enter this field.
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