What’s In It for Social Workers? (Part 1)

This topic will be addressed in a 2-part series. Part 1 contains almost exclusively cons for being a social worker (in Singapore), but it forms the necessary basis for thinking about Part 2. In Part 2, I consolidate thoughts on the question: How can social workers fulfill their personal visions for both social work and personal life?

A recent gathering with my social work batchmates prompted the question as we discussed how it has been more difficult to attract NUS undergrads to take on a Social Work degree. It was a very good question that we, in our half-decade since graduation, have had to answer. Barring passion and personal vision for the work, what’s in it for social workers?

Photo by Matheus Viana on Pexels.com

Somehow my first thoughts were what was UNATTRACTIVE about being a social worker. This probably stemmed from my own apprehensions about returning back to direct practice after the PhD, and reflections from being in the civil society space for my PhD:

1. In a VUCA world, the social worker salary contributes to the uncertainty.

This is particularly felt now with the ballooning costs of living. While I’m sure potential social workers enter the profession under no illusions of reaching a high SES, to contend with potential cutbacks on an expected standard of living in a world where money is still king is another thing altogether. Other helping professions like psychology and occupational therapy might fulfill a similar passion while paying more. Or perhaps, one might reason that getting a higher-paying job can allow one to contribute to worthy causes while maintaining material comforts/luxuries.

2. System barriers

It was impressed upon me during my undergraduate years that the main undergirding perspective that sets social work apart from other helping professions is the dual focus on the person, in the environment as it impinges upon or enables flourishing. This dual perspective is what should theoretically give social workers a critical mind and hands in the work. However, from my research on civil participation, I realized that there is a dearth of social workers in the civil society space where we should have more participation. There might be good reasons for why, and by no means am I casting aspersions on the good work done in the social service sector. Social service agencies fulfill an important role in the current model where these so-called ‘voluntary’ organizations meet social needs based on their organizational missions that may be faith-based or humanistic. The funds needed for this is largely through the Singapore government, or state-linked entities like NCSS. This naturally scopes the nature of work that social workers in these organizations do.

Thinking about this reminded me of a conversation with a community worker in Hong Kong (HK). She shared that the social services in HK also receive funding from the government- what they call subvented welfare services. For these, there was a need for a more palatable and softer approach to community work, as opposed to confrontational community organizing to address local problems. However, there are other projects that receive private funding (think the ubiquitous HK Jockey Club). They are also subject to KPIs from these funding corporations, but having diversified paymasters allowed for more flexibility to pursue other objectives in the projects.

I believe this is one major reason that social workers lack presence in the civil society space- and conversely why many who want to push for change in the systems may not see social work as a helpful choice of study. The current career paths in social work tend toward system maintenance.

3. A social work degree is not as useful for the private sector

In contrast to Counselling or Psychology (Masters level), the nature of the social work degree is pretty generalist. I loved how it aimed to cover broad bases of how the person is impacted by different systemic levels in the environment (eco-social work is especially pertinent now). Yet looking at it from a purely individualist economic perspective, social work graduates might not have the depth of specific counselling or psychotherapy skills for private counselling/therapy. This is not what we were trained for (Jane Addams be rolling in her grave 😨). But it appears that with burnout from the work, and toxic work environments in the social service sector, many social workers are leaving the field for other related careers. When this happens, a social work degree might not give as many ‘backup options’ in the private sector.

While this post really does feel like a downer and antithetical to the oft-used approach of seeking the good (strengths, resilience, assets) in social work, I feel like it is important to confront these- personally and if I may, as a profession. Appropriating a popular Chinese saying, 热情不能当饭吃 (literally, passion cannot be taken as rice to feed a person)- how can we as social workers thrive in today’s world? This is the question I will attempt to answer in Part 2.

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