Workforce Development Lessons From the Baltimore Health Corps
A new report, Evaluation of the Baltimore Health Corps Pilot: An Economic and Public Health Response to the Coronavirus, provides valuable insight into how Baltimore’s unique contact-tracing initiative trained and employed hundreds of city residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to the Consequences of the Pandemic
The Baltimore Health Corps was a city-run pilot program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and other partners. Launched in June 2020, the pilot simultaneously addressed two issues: the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting employment crisis faced by Baltimore residents. The pilot concluded in December 2021.
The Baltimore City Health Department and the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development led the Baltimore Health Corps, drawing on their experiences with equitable recruitment and hiring practices, workforce-supporting activities and public health worker training. Together, they led a team of public and private partners that included the Baltimore Civic Fund, Baltimore Corps, HealthCare Access Maryland (HCAM), Jhpiego and the Mayor’s Office of Performance and Innovation.
The initiative tracked those who contracted the virus at the height of the pandemic and connected COVID-19-positive individuals with testing, resources and other assistance. In doing so, the Baltimore Health Corps also placed unemployed workers on a path to high-quality, lasting careers via temporary positions as community health workers with the Baltimore City Health Department and HealthCare Access Maryland (HCAM). The program hired from a pool of Baltimore residents who reflected the city’s racial and ethnic demographics and were unemployed, underemployed or furloughed because of the pandemic.
By September 2021, 336 health workers had received training and took on roles within either the Health Corps’ contact tracing and outreach program or the care coordination and access program.
While these health worker positions were intended to last just eight months, as the pandemic persisted, the jobs were extended thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. As of May 2022, 126 Baltimore Health Corps workers remain employed with either the health department or HCAM, while 119 former staff members have since moved on to other employment opportunities.
“The Baltimore Health Corps pilot program was designed from the ground up to combat the short-term and long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Talib Horne, director of the Foundation’s Baltimore Civic Site. “Those employed by the Baltimore Health Corps not only helped to prevent the spread of the virus, but they also gained lifelong skills that they can continue to use for the benefit of their communities.”
Building a Workforce Beyond the Pandemic
The Baltimore Health Corps’ design included a critical component — career navigation assistance for each team member. Services included:
- guidance exploring and navigating potential careers using Mathematica’s Goal4 It! model;
- access to legal services and behavioral health care; and
- help with placement in more permanent jobs once the pilot ended.
According to the evaluation, 87% of Baltimore Health Corps workers used career navigation assistance, 82% accessed legal services and 42% took advantage of the behavioral health services available to them.
Another aspect of the program was occupational training. Provided by Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, it ensured inclusive hiring and employee retention. The training gave 100 candidates who initially lacked qualifications the opportunity to hone their skills or learn new ones while applying for Baltimore Health Corps. The evaluation found that those who completed this pre-job training were more likely to stay employed with the program, and 63% of participants found the training “very helpful.”
Drawing on surveys, focus groups and data provided by program partners, the evaluation also revealed challenges. Staff noted that the virtual hiring required by the pandemic made finding candidates, managing the application process and extending job offers more difficult and that many of these steps would have been easier in person.
Recommendations for Workforce Development Efforts
Evaluators offer several recommendations based on the Baltimore Health Corps pilot’s successful workforce development efforts:
- People skills are essential. Where possible, identify candidates who excel at customer service and collaboration.
- Create realistic timelines for hiring and training. Existing staff and new employees participating in a workforce development program should be given enough time to properly train and understand the values of the initiative.
- Choose the right project manager. Hire a dedicated project manager — ideally one with experience working with private organizations and public agencies.
- Give workers the support they need. Many Baltimore Health Corps workers reported satisfaction with the resources and benefits they received during the application process and while employed.
“The initiative provided residents an opportunity to serve the city and gain experience and transferable skills to take with them on their career paths,” says Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. “We were able to hire inclusively and equitably while also addressing the public health emergency.”