Schools in an SLP Staffing Bind

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Facing speech-language pathologist shortages, districts look to contingent labor.

Many K-12 schools are in a bind.

On one hand, they face a shortage of qualified therapists to help special-needs children. On the other hand, they must remain in compliance with the federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that disabled children ages 3-21 receive special education and related services.

The longer it takes schools to fill a position, the longer children could go without treatment — and the longer schools are out of compliance. So school districts are doing something different. They’re turning to contingent labor for help.

Therapists play a critical role in schools across the United States. Speech-language pathologists, along with occupational and physical therapists, assist children with autism, health impairments, and physical, emotional, learning or intellectual disabilities. The treatments these therapists provide make it possible for special-needs kids to be mainstreamed into regular classrooms.

The therapist staffing shortage affects all types of schools — public, private and charter — and its impact is felt in schools across the country.

The National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services noted that 47% of speech-language pathologists who work in schools reported special education personnel shortages in their schools in 2012. The lack of occupational therapists in New York City schools was the subject of a WYNC Radio piece earlier this year. In California and Illinois, bilingual therapists are in short supply.

AMN Healthcare is receiving an increasing number of contacts from schools and school districts that cannot find the therapists they need. Therapist shortages are affecting many areas of healthcare, but schools face added pressure due to the government mandate and the lack of care for children who need help.

Desperate to fill positions, schools have found that healthcare staffing agencies specializing in contract labor are proving quite useful.

Matching therapists to schools requires a certain skill. It takes a special type of clinician to work with special-needs children. A therapist who has spent an entire career in a nursing facility may not be suitable for a school-based setting.

To place the right candidates in K-12 schools, a healthcare staffing agency looks for people who have shown stability in their careers, and who have worked in pediatrics or school systems. School therapists must handle intense pressure as well. In an average school district, they typically handle a full-time caseload of 45-60 students.

Matching candidates to specific schools is also different than placing therapists in hospitals, outpatient clinics or skilled nursing facilities, which offer shorter assignments. Schools often desire full-time candidates for an entire school year. A longer assignment, however, can be appealing to contractors who want to stay put for a while. Other perks of working in schools, of course, are Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring vacations during the year and summers off.

Another challenge is that unlike hospitals, which work with hundreds of vendors, school districts generally work with fewer vendors and don’t know how to broadcast their needs. It often falls on the shoulders of overwhelmed special education directors to handle hiring. While they’re entirely capable of interviewing and assessing candidates, they’re pressed for time dealing with other administrative and managerial duties, as well as working directly with teachers and parents.

This is where a large healthcare staffing agency with a vendor management system comes in handy. It can tap into a database of agencies to find candidates from all over the country, including candidate selection, interviews, background checks, credentialing, timekeeping, billing and related workforce processes.

When it comes to interviewing, healthcare staffing agencies must adapt to a school’s expectations. While agencies usually conduct interviews via phone, this practice can make schools and special education directors wary. They’re uneasy bringing someone sight-unseen into a school setting to work with children, even if the candidate has passed the necessary background checks and TB tests.

In that case, Skype and virtual interviewing are a good compromise. This gives the special education director the opportunity to talk to a candidate face-to-face. This often dispels any discomfort a school may have about not meeting the candidate in person.

Healthcare staffing agencies are quickly learning what schools need to successfully fill positions. They’re adapting their practices to work with these particular clients.

For their part, schools have discovered that relying on contingent labor helps them quickly fill vacancies. And if they empower agencies to take the hiring completely off their hands, special education directors have time to focus on what’s important — ensuring kids receive the care they need.

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Jeff Decker
Jeff Decker

Jeff Decker is division president of the allied staffing division of AMN Healthcare, San Diego, Calif.

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