Seven Trends Will Shape the Future Public Health Workforce

April 18, 2022 | Joanne Pearsol

Illustration of man in paper airplane looking through a telescope at an upward line representing trends and projectionsASTHO convened a Workforce Think Tank for public health leaders in 2021. Anne Zink, MD, FACEP, ASTHO’s president-elect, moderated the event during which, Trista Harris—a philanthropic futurist—called upon leadership to think and lead futuristically as she identified the seven trends most likely to impact the future public health workforce.

  1. Sector shifts. People are desperate for their work to have meaning and will move from other fields to public health. Expect an influx of entry-level workers.
  2. Pivot to the future. Branding, modernization, attention to service and community, expansion and diversification of the workforce, and the culture of workplaces will impact how public health is accepted and what the labor force looks like in the future.
  3. Just-in-time learning. There will be less emphasis on having significant schooling before starting work. Rather, employees will constantly build skills through industry-driven, asynchronistic learning modules.
  4. Remote work. Many people now prefer to work from home and are moving from cities to suburban or rural areas. Government agencies need to consider what aspects of remote work should be retained and how to balance equity among positions with the needs of the organization and the community.
  5. Accelerated data collection and sharing. During the global pandemic, the focus on data collection and analysis has surged significantly worldwide; the future workforce must make meaning out of those data. Public health has received a great deal of funding for data modernization and will need to secure, adopt, and utilize new systems to drive public health decision-making in the future, which will require new skills, expertise, and workflows.
  6. Public health burnout. Working in public health agencies during a pandemic has placed stressors on the workforce, causing many to leave the field. Public health will need to provide mental health support, time off, and supportive workplace cultures for staff so they can stay healthy and in the field for the long-term.
  7. Reimagining systems. The pandemic has illuminated what isn’t working and where major system investments are needed. There is a national reckoning on racism and racial equity that has direct impact on the public health system. To prepare for a more equitable, more effective, and coherent future we will need to address the policies and systems at the root of health inequities.

Those in attendance identified the politicization of public health, communication and branding, and the elevation of health equity as stand-alone trends of the future. This is quite a list, and these trends have continued to bear out. Media, funders, and employers (government, non-profit, and private sectors alike) have called attention to the issues at hand, directed financial support to meet the needs, and sought new and out-of-the-box ways to confront the challenges these trends present.

ASTHO's Strategic Focus on Workforce Development

ASTHO’s new strategic plan prioritizes how we will help drive the future of public health. Workforce Development is one of those priorities, as are Health & Racial Equity, Sustainable Infrastructure Improvements, Data Modernization & Intermobility, and Evidence-Based and Promising Public Health Practices. Together, the objectives within each one of these priorities will help us address the future workforce trends - and others that may come our way. We will lean into this work and have begun to do so already.

ASTHO’s workforce team is growing. First, we initiated the CDC-funded Public Health Hope, Equity, Resilience, and Opportunity (HERO) program. Soon, we will launch a website devoted to promoting careers in public health and connecting applicants with jobs. We have released a legislative prospectus on workforce and will spotlight workforce topics at the annual convening of senior leaders in state public health agencies.

This summary is a glimpse of what is happening, and what lies ahead. We will keep you informed of our progress.