Penn-Mar Human Services Promotes Career Recognition and Higher Wages for Direct Support Professionals - Penn-Mar

Penn-Mar Human Services Promotes Career Recognition and Higher Wages for Direct Support Professionals

Posted on December 11, 2017

Last year, in an effort to recognize the vital work of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), address the challenges within a care system plagued with low wages and high turnover, and improve its employee recruitment and retention efforts Penn-Mar Human Services launched its Career Ladder initiative in partnership with the National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). The first year of this career development and credentialing program, inaugurated with a class of 26 DSPs, was a success, and Penn-Mar is gearing up for the program’s second year and a new class of 27.

Penn-Mar, a recognized leader in providing innovative, quality supports and services to hundreds of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in Maryland and Pennsylvania, employs a staff of 350 DSPs. Across the country, there are less than 250 DSPs who have received training to achieve credentialing. – out of a national workforce of two million serving people with IDD. Penn-Mar is poised to significantly raise that number and become the country’s largest employer of certified DSPs. Of the 26 applicants in the inaugural Career Ladder class, 15 DSPs are expected to receive certification from NADSP over the next several months.

“Our first year went extremely well,” said Laura Tieman, Penn-Mar’s Maryland COO. “Going into year two with 27 registered DSPs, we know exactly what to expect in terms of the program’s time commitment [a minimum of 100 hours], and the rigorous amount of work required in training and practicums, and preparing final portfolios for submission.”

According to Tieman, the standard to be accepted in the program is high and all applicants accepted must be registered by NADSP in order to participate. Performance metrics, along with input from colleagues, individuals and families are taken into consideration when choosing candidates. Candidates need to apply for each of three levels of advancement and meet certain performance standards to be eligible to move on to the next level of the program.

By establishing the Career Ladder program and developing these career standards that lead to professional credentialing and commensurate compensation, Penn-Mar is leading the national efforts to provide high-quality training and opportunities for DSPs that will ultimately reform the discrepancy between their unique skill sets and insufficient wages. Despite the critical role they play, the average wage of a DSP falls behind that of department store, gas station and fast food workers because of a lack of funding at the federal and state levels.

In January of this year, Penn-Mar received a generous gift of $1.5 million from Kay and Jim Pitts, of Naples, Florida, to establish The Michael James Pitts Endowment for the Advancement of Direct Support Professionals. Their gift, named in honor of their son, who has been with Penn-Mar for the last nine years, established an endowment to fund, in perpetuity, Penn-Mar’s DSP Career Ladder program.

Better Pay for DSPs is Critical

Penn-Mar works to empower adults with disabilities to live meaningful, productive lives in their communities. Fostering and supporting inclusion depends on the commitment and professionalism of DSPs. But the skills needed to provide exceptional support require far more than basic federal and state mandated training. Penn-Mar’s Career Ladder development and credentialing program is giving the nonprofit’s DSPs enhanced critical thinking, problem solving, and advocacy skills, as well as an opportunity for increased compensation.

In addition to training, compensation is a key factor in recruitment and retention of skilled DSPs. While DSP compensation can vary from state-to-state, the constant is that their income is at 25-50% below a living wage qualifying them for means-tested benefits such as food stamps and other public programs. Most DSPs struggle from paycheck-to-paycheck and hold down multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.

Traditional public funding sources do not allow for wages that are commensurate to the demands of the job, and these insufficient wages affect workforce retention and the quality of support provided. Researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers have recommended recruitment, retention, and education strategies to address this critical workforce need, however, they have yet to be sufficiently funded or brought to scale.

“DSPs have often been described as an ‘invisible workforce’ stemming from their work many years ago in public institutions hidden from public view,” said Gregory Miller, Penn-Mar’s president and CEO. “As the care settings transformed from costly institutions into smaller integrated communities, their environment – and that of those they supported – was vastly improved but their daily contributions remained largely unrecognized by all but those with a direct connection to their services.”

Miller added that greater advocacy is slowly creating awareness about the crucial impact dedicated DSPs have on so many lives and the need to professionalize the career in order to elevate its value and compensation.

DSP Advocacy

Penn-Mar has seen for some time now that the current instability of the DSP workforce threatens the outcomes for people with disabilities, especially while the demand for additional DSPs is growing exponentially. It is estimated that nationally more than one million new direct support positions will need to be filled by 2022.

Given the growing demand for DSP services, providers and advocates are turning up the volume to promote the role of the DSP and arming legislators with the facts. Late this past September, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the bill Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage or RAISE Family Caregivers Act. The measure would draw up and implement a national plan to “recognize and support family caregivers” including DSPs supporting people with IDD. The legislation now goes before the House of Representatives.

Penn-Mar is also partnering with NADSP to advocate for DSP credentialing on a national scale and is on a committee with Maryland Department of Health’s Developmental Disabilities Administration to look into additional funding for having accredited staff.

“So we’re taking a lot of steps to move this whole thing forward not just for Penn-Mar but across Maryland and Pennsylvania and the country,” said Tieman. “DSP certification on a national scale would not only help to validate the profession and the amazing work that DSPs do, but it would become a transferable credential, like that of an LPN or CNA.”

Penn-Mar is proud to announce the names of the 26 Penn-Mar DSPs from Maryland and Pennsylvania selected to participate in year two of the DSP Career Ladder program: Hayley Armold, Serena Bingham, Kayla Brown, Teah Cabral, Mary Craven, Trishia Davenport, Marion Dyke, Lisa Evans, Susan Feliciano, Debbie Glison-Will, Jasmine Harris-Britto, Joanna Horn, Autumn Huntley-Lau, Ruby Jarrett, Essence Kehr, Kim Kucherer, Elena Leonard, Chevon Miller, Amie Newton, Natalie Place, Ronielyn Rosal, Hope Schneider, Michele Scott, Charlene Smith, Susan Thorpe, and Wilberforce Osey Yeboah.

For more information about Penn-Mar’s DSP Career Ladder Initiative, contact Penn-Mar’s Chief Development Officer Kathy Rogers, at 410-343-1069 x227, or by e-mail at


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