Wave of baby boomer retirements could sap a quarter of the public health workforce

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The public health workforce may not be able to keep up with the private sector to attract top candidates, researchers say. (Getty/AndreyPopov)

Waves of retiring baby boomers continue to wash over the employment landscape, but the public health workforce is bracing for a significant hit.

Researchers estimate that a whopping 25% of the workforce could either retire or lose their jobs due to attrition, according to a report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 

Jonathon Leider, Ph.D., associate faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the study's authors, said in an announcement that the research puts workforce changes in perspective. 

"Because of the Great Recession beginning in 2008 and other economic considerations, staff are delaying retirement in unprecedented numbers," Leider said. "However, this can't last forever, and agencies will see the 'silver tsunami' show up, if they haven't already. Our research helps quantify this challenge." 

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At present, about 197,000 people are employed at state and local public health agencies, according to the study. At least 65,000 of those staffers are set to retire by 2020. 

The researchers estimate that 100,000 staff members could leave the public health workforce by 2020. Universities issue about 25,000 public health degrees each year, so in theory there would be enough graduates to meet demand. 

The problem, though, is that private entities, which can offer better pay and benefits, have an edge up on recruiting those graduates.

Public health agencies must be able to adapt to attract and retain qualified hires, Elizabeth Harper, of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and one of the study's authors, said in the announcement. 

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"Workforce shortages are more than a mere numbers game, since the potential supply of workers far exceeds potential demand," Harper said. 

Meanwhile, the healthcare industry is also battling a nationwide physician shortage, although many baby boomer physicians are hesitant to retire, which could ease that looming crisis. Still, estimates puts the shortage of physicians at 100,000 by 2030.