Direct Support Professional Career Paths: Help Your DSPs Grow

In order to foster direct support professional career growth within your organization, make sure your staff members have options beyond their current roles. To create an effective career path, organizations must find ways around the traditional barriers to DSP professionalization, such as lack of investment from government agencies, data to measure their impact on the community, and systematic solutions to meet the ever-expanding need for DSPs.

Career paths can help organizations and individual DSPs overcome these impediments by creating a planned, structured approach for growth. When it comes to creating effective DSP career paths, two main strategies exist for IDD organizations: career laddering and credentialing programs.

In the following sections, we will discuss how to begin using these options and the potential benefits they offer to DSPs and their organizations.

Identify Direct Support Professional Career Ladders

At its core, career laddering is a set plan of steps that individuals can take to grow within an organization. For the individual direct support professional, career ladders offer avenues to earn recognition, more pay, and greater responsibilities. For organizations, implementing an effective direct support professional career laddering strategy can lead to greater DSP retention. In fact, in our 2021 Relias DSP Survey report, respondents said they would be more likely to stay with their current organization if offered stronger career advancement opportunities.

In order to create a career ladder that will benefit your DSPs as well as your organization, you must take a multifaceted approach. The University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI) suggests these steps:

  1. Meet with stakeholders at regular intervals to get buy-in, proactively communicate, and ensure continued support.
    • The purpose of these meetings is to get buy-in from the leaders of the organization. Create regularly scheduled meetings with this group to keep them apprised of progress and ensure continued support of the initiative.
  2. Take time to develop and write out the vision and goals for the program.
    • It’s important to understand why your organization needs a career laddering strategy. At this stage of direct support professional career ladder planning, make sure your organization understands its why and creates a practical plan for achieving its goals.
  3. Build out a framework to help you move forward.
  4. Perform comprehensive fund raising.
    • Traditionally, one of the reasons comprehensive career laddering has not been made available for DSPs is the lack of funding available to organizations. In order to provide funds for your career laddering program, your organization will need to get creative with where it locates its funds. The ICI recommends strategies such as grant funding, reallocating funds from other areas, and partnering with community colleges or other training institutions, among other possible steps.
  5. Develop the trainings your organization will use.
    • It is important to customize any training you incorporate as part of your career ladder to the individual. By allowing DSPs to improve their skills, you will create a stronger work force while allowing staff to effectively grow their career. Additionally, offering structured training plans to develop a specific set of skills can be used. For example, ANCOR’s Certificates of Achievement allow DSPs to develop specific skill sets necessary for positions such as behavior specialists, customized self-employment specialists, or employee wellness specialists.
  6. Put your plan into action.
    • Launch the program. Make sure to begin collecting data from day one. The only way to determine the efficacy of your career laddering initiative will be to prove DSP growth over time. Data points to consider collecting include turnover rates before and after program implementation and the number of DSPs engaged in the program.
  7. Step back and assess the program.
    • Analyze the data you’ve collected around the career laddering program. To keep organizational buy-in, you will need to present this data to your organization’s leaders. Use this data to highlight what has gone well with the initiative, as well as areas that can be improved upon.
  8. Build your program to last.
    • Career ladders are only effective for organizations if they have staying power. By creating the means of acquiring recurring funding, getting continued organizational buy-in, and instituting the proper oversight, you can create a program that will last.

Besides direct support professional career laddering, consider offering credentialing. This model fits in well with a career ladder program. Creating an effective credentialing program, however, requires its own set of planning.

Consider a Credentialing Program

Credentialing programs allow direct support professionals to grow their career by increasing their knowledge and skills, while also advancing their standing within the industry. This type of program can work to increase DSP satisfaction with their organization and thus can lead to greater DSP retention.

To create a credentialing program that will help DSPs grow their career, prior to launch the organization must create benchmarks for their program. Possibilities include:

  • Ease of access by staff
  • Stakeholder guidance
  • The ability to create and measure competence
  • The flexibility to revise the program’s methods and standards as you go
  • Requirements for staff to recertify periodically

Once these benchmarks have been set, there are several credentialing paths that organizations can choose to use within their program. Popular options include apprenticeship programs through government bodies, like the Department of Labor, the NADSP Certification program, and state certification programs. Some organizations even offer training programs that allow DSPs to become certified nurse aides or home health aides. Each of these options affords DSPs different paths forward, equipping them with the skills and knowledge to perform different jobs.

Determine the needs of your DSPs and choose the credentialing programs that best fits their career goals.

Helping Your Direct Support Professionals Grow Their Career

By creating effective strategies to help your direct support professionals grow their careers, you’ll put your organization on the path to greater staff retention and higher quality outcomes. By showing DSPs you care about and are invested in their future with your organization, you’re more likely to retain their services. This continuity in care givers, especially as they increase their skills through career growth initiatives, will create a higher level of care for persons served. By implementing effective DSP career growth, you’re investing in both your staff and your organization as a whole.

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Jordan Baker

Content Marketing Manager, Relias

Jordan is passionate about e-learning and helping learners achieve their goals. At Relias, he works with subject matter experts across disciplines to shape healthcare content designed to improve clinical practice, staff expertise, and patient outcomes.

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