Turnover is a challenge in public health jobs

LANSING — More than a third of Michigan’s top county health officials have resigned in the past year, many as a result of dealing with the pressures of the pandemic.

Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Local Public Health Association, said that because information about COVID-19 changes daily, public health officials are taking the blame for many of the inconsistencies and burnout experienced.

“There were a lot of times where no matter what decision they made, half of their community was rooting for them and the other half was ready to smash bottles over their head,” Hess said.

Fifteen of Michigan’s 42 local health officials have left in the past year, he said.

Public health officials assess community needs and implement policies based on those assessments.

Burnout and stress have created a need for public health positions.

Many people in local public health are retiring to change careers or for political reasons, and those positions need to be filled fairly quickly, said Mary Cushion, internship coordinator for Central Michigan University’s Master of Public Health Accreditation Program

“We’ve had a number of local health department directors who either had to resign because their county commissioners or their board of health didn’t support their decision related to COVID,” she said.

However, some of the state universities report a surge in student interest in the field.

Before the pandemic, there were 79 students enrolled in Michigan State University’s master of public health program in the fall 2019 semester, according to MSU enrollment trends. By the summer semester of 2021, 98 students had enrolled.

“I think a lot of people became interested in what was going on around them,” said Wayne McCullough, director of the school’s master’s in public health program. “They saw that some people were dying at disproportionate rates and because of race and gender.”

Working in public health isn’t always the first choice of graduate students, Hess said.

“A lot of people who get a master’s degree in public health dream of going and working for Eli Lilly or MedImmune, where you can make a lot of money, but nobody thinks they want to grow up and work in local public health,” Hess said.

The national hourly wage for people with a master’s degree in public health is $53.56 and $111,410 a year, according to Nursing Process, a website that provides nurses with education and employment information.

But Michigan lags behind: People with a master’s degree in public health make $47.24 an hour and $98,250 a year. Nursing Process ranked Michigan 43 out of 50 for average salary by state.

“I’m really hoping to break into the political sector at the local level as well as the state and federal level,” said Caitlin Massaria, a student in Michigan State’s master’s of public health program. Its purpose is to advise Congress on public health policy.

Twelve universities in Michigan offer a master’s degree in public health: Michigan State, University of Michigan, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Saginaw Valley State University, Andrews University, Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, Madonna University and Oakland University.

There has also been an increase in enrollment in Central Michigan’s master of public health program, Cushion said.

“Our previous health officer retired right in the middle of the pandemic,” said Andrew Cox, health officer for the Macomb County Health Department. Cox has been in the position since January 2021.

While his agency hasn’t seen a huge drop in staff, it has had challenges recruiting new graduates.

Working with Oakland University to offer more internship opportunities.

Competition for quality candidates is fierce, Cox said.

“Several health systems are increasing salaries, which means we have to be more creative with our offerings and how we attract those people,” he said.

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