Public Health Workforce and Education in California


Margaret Fix and Janet M. Coffman

July 31, 2020

This report presents an overview of current and future supply and demand for California’s public health workforce. Public health professionals perform a wide range of services aimed at creating the conditions in which people can be healthy. Some public health professionals provide services to individuals, such as vaccination and education about healthy behaviors (e.g., education about the risks associated with consuming tobacco or alcohol). Others address community needs, such as investigating and treating outbreaks of communicable disease, providing access to nutritious foods and safe places to exercise, and enforcing safety standards in workplaces and sanitary standards in restaurants.1 Epidemiologists conduct research at a population level to identify risk factors and trends in the incidence and prevalence of disease. Still other public health professionals develop, implement and evaluate programs, systems and policies to improve health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the public health workforce and revealed a critical need for reinvestment in it. For example, California needs to substantially increase the number of contact tracers working with people who test positive for COVID-19 and those with whom they have had close contact to
ensure that they have access to testing, medical care and other services that can reduce the spread of the virus.

The public health workforce is usually defined in one of two ways. One definition encompasses all people who work for local, state or federal agencies that provide public health services, regardless of whether they have degrees in public health. The other definition includes all those who have bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees in public health, regardless of whether they work for public health agencies. Neither definition is optimal. Many jobs for public health agencies do not require public health degrees, and many people with public health degrees do not work for organizations that provide public health services. For example, people with master’s degrees in public health who work for health systems or health plans.


  • No single source of data exists that encompasses all workers in the public health workforce.
  • The majority of employees of state and local health departments in the United States were female (79%) and non-Hispanic white (59%) in 2017.
  • Over one-fourth (27.78%) of employees of state and local public health departments in 2017 were older than 55 years.
  • Only 14% of state and local public health department employees in the United States had any public health degree in 2017,
  • Nationwide, the number of graduate degrees awarded in public health grew by 300% between 1992 and 2016.
  • Twenty-eight colleges and universities in California award bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees in public health, including 4 schools of public health and 16 public health programs accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH).
  • A survey of 36 local health departments and 41 state health agencies across the United States found that state health agencies most frequently reported high need for epidemiologists and laboratory workers, while local health departments reported high need for disease intervention specialists, nurses, and administrative support.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing demand for the public health workforce.