Once lauded, 'helping professions' now difficult jobs to fill
To inspire the next generation to step into these professions, we, as a community, must show that we value and respect the people who do these important jobs. Right now, we are not doing enough.
For as long as I can remember, community has been the safety net that cradles Rhode Islanders through challenging times. And within that community, the people who serve in helping professions – teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and others – were admired by everyone in the community they served.
But now, worker shortages in these professions are the worst that we can remember. Burnout, mass retirements, lack of inclusivity, low compensation, and other challenges have made these once lauded professions more difficult jobs to fill.
It is necessary to recognize that there are subpar performers in all professions, including the helping professions. Systemic and cultural shifts must occur to truly reflect – and dutifully serve – our incredibly diverse communities.
We must inspire the next generation to serve the community with pride.
If our children are our future, then our teachers are the key to our future. Teachers have become more than in-school educators, they are also called to deal with community needs well beyond the classroom.
Nurses are the backbone of our healthcare system. They have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, balancing technical expertise with compassionate care.
Police officers are the community servants we rely on to maintain safety and civility. While we need to demand more from the profession broadly – an evolution in training and culture, understanding and inclusivity for those from all backgrounds, and a shift in power dynamics – it is still true that becoming a police officer is an opportunity to serve and protect.
Firefighters and emergency medical service professionals care directly for the community during the most difficult and tragic moments. They routinely place themselves in danger to provide a better outcome for each of us.
In order to inspire the next generation to step into these professions, we, as a community, must show that we value and respect the people who do these important jobs. Right now, we are not doing enough.
We need to equitably recruit, retain, fairly compensate, respect, and value the people in these foundational professions. We can do this via public investment, and by encouraging young and early-career Rhode Islanders to consider community service as a professional path.
It is time for local, labor, and elected leaders to invest in our communities by elevating these helping professions. In order to make these fields attractive to a new generation, we must commit to diversifying the workforce, increasing our support, and improving salaries. Otherwise, these critical professions will continue to erode – and, with them, the community safety net.
It’s time we acknowledge that these jobs are among the most valuable in our communities – and that we treat them as such.
Neil D. Steinberg is the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
This commentary piece was published in the Boston Globe Rhode Island on July 27, 2022.