Symposium Seeks to Boost Workforce

Mit JoynerMit Joyner, president of the Council on Social Work Education, participated in the symposium.

Social work leaders, government representatives, interdisciplinary collaborators, health care consultants, educators and representatives of foundations and front-line service providers convened at NASW to identify ways to support policies that will build the social work workforce across fields of practice.

Participant Marilyn Flynn said the meeting was critical since the entire health care workforce is facing ever increasing challenges.

“The future strength of the profession depends on our leadership in defining roles, responsibilities and programs in this dramatically changing social and health services landscape of the 21st century,” said Flynn, who is dean and professor for the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California

The think-tank symposium, titled “Investing in the Social Work Workforce,” was hosted by the NASW Foundation’s Social Work Policy Institute, or SWPI, and the Action Network for Social Work Education and Research, or ANSWER, Coalition.

The event drew leaders in social work practice, policy, research and education, as well as representatives from federal, state and local agencies, national organizations, universities and insurers.

“The symposium brought together an unusual crosscut of public sector leaders and private consultants (whose discussions) were both stimulating and useful for me,” Flynn said.

Among the presenters was Diana Espinosa, deputy administrator with the Bureau of Health Professions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who explained there is good news about the Affordable Care Act: It updates and reauthorizes grant programs that support workforce growth and training and promotes diversity and interdisciplinary training for the healthcare workforce, she said.

A focus for the Bureau of Health Professions includes developing team-based models of care on interprofessional training, she added.

A presentation by Clare Anderson, deputy commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at HHS, highlighted meeting the needs of the child welfare workforce.

She said the child welfare population today has decreased by 25 percent since the early 1990s. However, Anderson said there is a need for skilled clinicians because “we have to better understand the problems we are facing.” Anderson also noted that her mother was an NASW Alabama Chapter president and that she was proud to present at NASW.

Other presentations focused on opportunities for social work as it relates to medical home and accountable care organizations as well as strategies to work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as they implement health care reform. The latest social work political advocacy efforts were also described.

SWPI’s director, Joan Levy Zlotnik, said the symposium allowed participants from different fields of practice, such as aging, health care, oncology, veterans, military, child welfare, substance abuse and mental health, “to think outside their silos to see the common issues that different organizations are working on.”

She added, “There was a healthy consensus among the participants that we all need to work together. Collaborations are critical.”

Uma AhulwaliaUma Ahulwalia pointed out that communities are increasingly diverse and cultural competency among the workforce is more vital than ever.

Zlotnik said the presentation by Uma Ahluwalia, director of Health and Human Services for Montgomery County, Md., offered a front-line perspective reinforcing data from NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies that the social work workforce will be shrinking due to upcoming retirements. Ahulwalia pointed out that communities are increasingly diverse and cultural competency among the workforce is more vital than ever.

Attendees were divided into workgroups and each was assigned a different topic to discuss.

Alison P. Smith, vice president of Strategic Initiatives for C-Change (an organization dedicated to conquering cancer), said her workgroup focused on opportunities to promote careers in social work through a wide variety of traditional approaches. The group also examined new opportunities, such as helping high school students fulfill their community service requirements through activities that would expose them to social work.

Smith said attendees discussed ideas to attract the best and brightest into the field of social work and foster collaborations to build workforce capacity across disciplines — for instance, social workers and nurses working together.

“The participants brought a rich array of perspectives to a thought- and action-provoking agenda,” she said.

Tracy Whitaker, NASW’s director of social work practice and the Center for Workforce Studies, presented on the importance of investing in the social work workforce. She said other professions such as nursing, dentistry, medicine and teaching are facing workforce shortages similar to social work’s.

Part of the problem, she added, is that social work’s effectiveness among the general public remains undervalued.

“I believe that the compelling case for investing in the social work workforce includes the argument that without a floor, that below which one can fall, a society cannot claim its civility,” she said. “If the work of sustaining the civility of a society is important, and if social workers are key to this vital work, then we no longer have a choice but rather a mandate to invest in the social work workforce.”

Zlotnik said the event also reinforced the case for more research on the cost-effectiveness of social work programs and social workers. “We need robust repositories of information to showcase our effectiveness,” she said.

Particpant Nora O’Brien-Suric, senior program officer with The John A. Hartford Foundation, said the symposium was well organized and attended.

“The speakers were well chosen and there was a nice balance of interests related to social work — such as geriatrics and child welfare,” she said. She commended SWPI “for convening this symposium and getting people to focus on how to improve the image of social workers as well as to help the social work profession work together and strengthen the profession.”

For more information, visit The Social Work Policy Institute.