Welcome Back, Social Work Students

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

It is no secret that it has been a difficult year so far. Our nation has been struggling in a variety of ways, and individuals, families and communities have suffered as a result. Social workers are facing serious challenges that threaten our ability to serve our clients.

These challenges include external forces such as the economic collapse, political issues such as reforming our health care system, and internal concerns including workforce challenges. From Frances Perkins to Dorothy Height, social workers have historically provided an important voice to overcome these problems.

To address our current issues, we must recognize our collective professional power. There are 600,000 social workers across this country. We have the capacity to tackle these concerns and develop answers to society’s most pressing problems.

In response to current challenges, the profession once again joined together to find solutions. This year, we held a successful Social Work Congress, which convened 400 social work leaders from around the nation who developed imperatives that will succeed only if social workers commit to making them a reality. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, a credential held by 40,000 social workers. The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act continued to make progress, gaining national support and cosponsors. This happened because social workers sent more than 100,000 letters and postcards in support of the bill.

From advocacy to evidence-based practice, social workers make the world a bit better each day by collaborating and recognizing the value we each bring to the profession.

Although we’ve done a good job of working to promote and protect the profession, we can do a better job of being more inclusive of social work students and emerging professionals. Each year more than 30,000 students receive a social work degree. They bring fresh ideas and an invaluable perspective to the profession. As we face barriers to recruitment and retention and deal with an increasing demand for our services, social work students are more important than ever. If almost 30 percent of practicing social workers plan to retire in the coming decade (as the nation’s teachers are expected to do), we can expect to lose almost 180,000 social workers quite soon.

This potential shortage of professional social workers will be devastating to people who depend on our services.

As I travel to conferences and events across the country, I see many of the same people leading our organizations and groups. They’ve provided critical leadership during times of great change, but I’m concerned about the next generation of leaders. Many events are populated by established professionals and often lack younger social workers, new faces, or ideas. Our boards and our organizations will be diminished if we do not mentor young people and welcome new social work leaders to the profession.

As students go back to class this fall, I hope we all make a concerted effort to reach out to them as they begin their social work careers.

Social work can benefit only if we pass our knowledge from one generation to the next. I’d like to use this column to welcome social work students to the profession and to urge experienced colleagues to hire, mentor, listen to and prepare young social workers for difficult but rewarding careers.

In turn, I hope that our newest social workers recognize the value of these relationships. We ask that they learn about professional social work associations and we encourage them to volunteer for leadership positions and to use networking opportunities to build a stronger profession. We understand and appreciate not only the value they bring, but the necessity of emerging leaders to the future of our profession. We look forward to working with our newest colleagues.