Study Eyes Career Choices

NASW and the NASW Center for Workforce Studies have issued a report that examines some of the reasons social workers chose their career paths.

The study, "Who Wants to be a Social Worker? Career Influences and Timing," was developed in an effort to gain insight into the profession, which is facing a workforce shortage, said Tracy Whitaker, director of the NASW Center for Workforce Studies.

"By better understanding the influences of different groups, the profession increases its capacity to target its recruitment efforts most effectively," she said. "The profession has a unique opportunity to recruit new professionals at different points in the life span, ranging from elementary and high school students to people seeking a satisfying second career."

The new study is based on data collected in 2007 from 3,653 NASW members who elected to participate through Memberlink newsletters, Specialty Practice Section alerts, mailed copies of the NASW News and the NASW Web site.

A primary question in the survey sought to uncover what influenced people to enter the workforce in the first place. The top three factors were: interest in helping people; desire to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged populations; and interest in providing mental health services. The study revealed that men and women differed slightly in their motivations. For example, both groups identified helping people as the leading motivator to pursue social work. Women, however, were more likely to identify advocating for disadvantaged populations, while men identified providing mental health services as their second highest motivating factor.

A surprising discovery occurred after participants were asked to identify a person or entity that most influenced their decision to pursue social work. Although "social worker" and "mentor" were among the highest ranking responses (second and third respectively), the highest ranking response was "other." Teachers, relatives and the media were among the lowest ranking influences.

Men and women differed slightly in answering the question about who most influenced their career choice. Women were most likely to be influenced by someone in the "other" category, while men were most likely to be influenced by a social worker. Teachers were more influential with women; mentors were more influential with men.

The study revealed that nearly half (45 percent) of the participants first thought about becoming social workers during their college years. A third (33 percent) of the respondents first considered the profession sometime after college; and 22 percent thought about a social work career prior to entering college.

Women were more likely than men to consider a career in social work before they entered college (24 percent vs. 10 percent), and men were more likely than women to consider a social work career after college (44 percent vs. 31 percent). Percentages of men and women who chose social work in college were nearly identical (46 percent vs. 45 percent).

Second careers. Sixty percent of respondents age 40 and older reported that they had worked in another career prior to becoming a social worker. When compared to other respondents age 40 and older who had entered the profession as their first career, second-career social workers were slightly more likely to be male and more likely to be single.

Second-career social workers were much more likely to have first thought about becoming social workers after college (51 percent) than first-career social workers (19 percent). Second-career social workers were also more likely to have been influenced by a mentor, as opposed to a teacher, than first-career social workers.

Second-career social workers were also most likely to have worked in the private, for-profit sector (51 percent) prior to embarking on a career in social work. Twenty-six percent of second-career social workers left careers in the public sector, and 23 percent had prior careers in the private, nonprofit sector.