Entrepreneurs, Business Professionals Changing the Face of Social Work

By Josette Keelor

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When the late Joan Upshaw started the company Social Work p.r.n. in 1988, she had a vision for the way social work could branch out from its traditional mold of direct practice and advocacy roles and expand its reach into social enterprise.

“She was always a builder and innovator,” said her daughter Marijo Upshaw,a social worker and adjunct professor at Wayne State University in Michigan.“She said this is something the field can use.”

Now celebrating the 30th anniversary of its conception, Social Work p.r.n.—a professional company that provides social work staffing, consultation, clinical work supervision, temporary and permanent placement, training, and education to other businesses and organizations—has expanded from its Overland Park, Kansas, operations hub to include offices in Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Jackson, Miss.

The initials p.r.n. stand for “pro re nata” or “under the circumstances.”

“Hence, our name Social Work ‘as needed,’” the company explains on its website, socialworkprn.com.

“It was the staffing piece that really took off,” Upshaw said.

But Social Work p.r.n. took some time to become successful, and Upshaw recalled how in the beginning, people didn’t know what to make of her mother’s upstart.

Part of the problem was that people didn’t think of social workers as starting businesses, she said.

“My mom was always very purposeful in wanting to bean experiment,” Upshaw said. “She was always a trailblazer.”

The idea for the company formed when her mother had been director of social services at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in the Kansas City area and noticed how the hospital used float nurses to fill in where they had an absence or vacated job.

“We should have something like that in social work,” Upshaw recalled her mother saying.

While there, working as a social worker, her mother grew a department of 20-plus social workers. She grew her business and had it incorporated in 1992.

Today, after 30 years, “There’s a field now of social entrepreneurship,” Upshaw said.

The Upshaws and other social workers with entrepreneurial spirits help redefine what social work can be. Whether it’sa niche business or a more traditional social work role with a twist, they say the possibilities are nearly limitless and social work degrees are very marketable.

Neuroscience and Therapy

Janis Norton, a licensed clinical social worker in Harrisonburg, Va., uses her skills in the field of neuroscience. In college, she majored in psychology,but she never intended to be a psychologist or any other type of medical professional.

“I wanted to do family therapy,” she said. “It just looked like a really good field.”

A 1978 graduate of Ohio State’s MSW program, Norton later earned her LCSW in the early 1980s and has worked in a number of different settings. But it was through her work that she realized her interest in looking into new ways of helping clients.

“A lot of times people didn’t seem to be helped enough by talking about their feelings,” she said. “[They] couldn’t get beyond their own nervous system ‘stuckness’ to use the ideas in a session.”

Norton learned of neurofeedback while talking with some colleagues in the Washington, D.C., area. When combined with therapy, it can help counselors kick things up a notch in their sessions, she said.

“I heard it from people who seemed very sane,” she said.But that didn’t stop others from raising an eyebrow whenshe mentioned her interest in changing her focus to incorporate those ideas in her own line of work.

“People would say, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled.

Now a lot of people in the counseling community are learning about it, she said, so it’s not considered so strange anymore. “It’s a training program, so not a treatment.I’m not a neurologist here.”

Clients are getting a brain training and they’re talking about their world at the same time, she said. In the training, neurofeedback sensors are hooked to the head so they can pick up the nervous system’s signals from the scalp.The sensors measure a person’s stress levels to prompt a response from the nervous system.

“It’s picking up signs that the brain is going from relaxed and calm to not relaxed and calm,” Norton said. It’s giving feedback, so hopefully the brain will reboot itself.

Over time, she looks for her clients to develop a more flexible nervous system.

“The nervous system is going to seek balance on its own,if only it’s given feedback when it’s not balanced,” she said.“If you’re given information that your nervous system is sluggish or over-aroused … the idea is that the brain is being sort of subtly told, ‘uh-uh.’”

She said this sort of test helps people who are self-aware enough to think to themselves, “I’m really anxious and I think my nervous system could use some work.”

It’s a growing field, she said, but so far, people have reported good results.

An April 2016 review paper published on the National Institutes of Health website describes neurofeedback as “a kind of biofeedback, which teaches self-control of brain functions to subjects by measuring brainwaves and providing a feedback signal.”

“Neurofeedback is not a new concept,” the report continues. “It has been the subject of the study of researchers for several decades. Neurofeedback is a method that assists subjects to control their brain waves consciously.”

Norton combines neurofeedback therapy with the Bowen family systems theory through the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in her work with the private practice she started in Harrisonburg in 2003.

“It is a theory of human functioning based on evolution,” she said. It’s based on the idea that man and his systems are similar to other beings and their systems. “There’s a heavy focus on people and their influence on one another”and how we shape each other.

It’s also an idea that contrasts with focusing on clients in terms of their individuality, she said.

“You try to always be thinking of people in context—what’s the climate, what’s the geography, what’s the neighborhood?” she said. “What’s the family history, most important, of course.”

It’s about how all these things are connected.

Furthermore, she said she could use it for any other form of therapy and combine this method with others. “I can’t think of why you wouldn’t.”

Helping Cancer Patients

Also in Virginia, Elaine Dunaway, LCSW, is a resource for cancer patients who experience anxiety after diagnosis or during treatment at Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital Hahn Cancer Center in Harrisonburg.

She offers individual counseling and integrative health coaching, and she’s available for crisis intervention.She also works with patients who have had biofeedback or neurofeedback, and she provides distress screening for new patients.

“I love what I do, honestly,” she said, adding that she chose her line of work for the variety it offers.

“I feel fortunate to have this job,” she said. “[It] combines the medical field with social work and counseling.”

Dunaway has her BSW from Eastern Mennonite University and her MSW from Catholic University.

“I think a social work degree and especially an MSW is very marketable,” she said.

Seeking Higher Pay

At its website, bls.gov, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2017 median annual wage for social workers as $47,980 per year, or $23.07 per hour. The lowest 10 percent of earners made less than $29,560, and the highest 10 percent made more than $79,740.

But while wages of social workers might be slow to grow, the bureau reports the field of social work is increasing more than twice as quickly as other fields.

Between 2016 and 2026, U.S. jobs were projected to grow by 7 percent—though careers in social work are expected to increase by an average of 16 percent, specifically in the fields of child, family, and school social work; health care;and mental health and substance abuse.

Using data from the Occupational Outlook Handbook for social workers, the bureau projects a rise in child, family, and school social work jobs from 317,600 in 2016 to 362,600 by 2026. Social work jobs in health care were expected to increase from 176,500 to 212,000, and mental health/substance abuse jobs from 123,900 to 147,900.

All other social work positions were expected to expand from 64,000 in 2016 to 69,300 in 2026.

“Overall, job prospects should be very good, particularly for clinical social workers,” the site says.

Though growth is expected to vary by specialization,the bureau expects increased demand for health care and social services to drive demand for social workers.

Top industries for social workers in May 2017 were hospitals, state or local government, ambulatory healthcare services, and individual and family services.

Business and Social Work

Social work helps improve lives, but it isn’t for everyone. It takes the right sort of person, which can make outsiders think it’s something people are drawn to from a young age.

Sometimes, yes. But not always.

“Interesting story, I didn’t really go into social work,”said Kim Adams, CEO of Social Work p.r.n.

When she came to work for her mother’s fledgling company around 1989, she had a business degree from Baker University. “[And] I was a late student, even with the business degree,” she said.

Already a mom herself, Adams returned to college for her undergrad degree before joining her mother and sister, Marijo, at the helm of their business.

“I think my mom had a lot of influence on me,” Adams said. After all, she said, Joan Upshaw did something similar, returning to school after starting a family.

“You can always do that,” Adams said. “I’m a lifetime learner too.”

Adams always had jobs, but said it wasn’t until after getting her degree that she began to realize her potential in the world of business. She recalled it giving her a sense of accomplishment.

While stressing that college isn’t for everyone, Adams said anyone’s background is suitable to a career in social work,if they wish to pursue it.

It’s a great fit for any level of experience or any degree program, she said. “I don’t know anyone who does anything that social work wouldn’t make a nice complementary degree to.”

In her case, after working with social workers for several years, she said, “It steered me toward social work for my graduate degree.” She earned her degree in 2009.

While her mom ran the company, Social Work p.r.n. expanded multiple times to include offices in cities around the country. After her mother died in 2010, and Adams took over as CEO, she focused instead on sustaining the company—at least in terms of size and direction.


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While the company might not be expanding in that sense, Adams said it’s been growing through its use of technology to connect with new or potential employees, other professionals, and the community at large.

Smartphones, teleconferencing, and services like Skype have made it easier to connect with people around the country, and it’s allowed for sharing of ideas in a way they might not have otherwise done.

As communication changes and grows, so do the opportunities social workers have to branch out from more traditional job fields.

Social Work p.r.n. has filled roles in high-profile entertainment fields, such as providing a social worker in California for the Screen Actors Guild to help clients in a nursing home, or a professional to work backstage at a talk show, helping onscreen guests deal with their reactions to unexpected and hurtful news revealed on the show.

“I thought that was pretty interesting,” Adams said.“We’ve had social workers work in politicians’ offices, [and] in attorneys’ offices to help persons with estate planning.”

They’ve also placed social workers at police stations, both as a support to the police force and as someone to offer aid to victims or families.

After the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Social Work p.r.n. sent a social worker with a response team to give support to the caregivers and recovery teams. The company also helped the Red Cross after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

"A Generalist Profession"

“Social workers, we are a generalist profession,” said Sheri Hilger, clinical director at Social Work p.r.n. “Social work skills can be transferable.”

Hilger, who also runs staffing services at the Kansas City office, has been a social worker since 1992.

“I chose social work because I had worked with a social worker when I was younger, and I felt that social work was a great opportunity to help people,” she said.“I just like how social workers help people in the context of their environment.”

At Social Work p.r.n., she works to build a staff of social workers to place in various other work situations and arranges for other services, such as clinical supervision.

She said the primary work they do with staffing is to hire a core set of social workers who will be available when called upon for different roles.

As clinical director, Hilger has oversight for all clinical components of the staffing services.

The social workers she’s known have enjoyed being able to use their different skill sets in different practice arenas, either because they’re seeking other employment that can use those skills or because they’re at a place in their lives and careers where they want to expand their current roles.

“And we’re just a good place for them to come while they’re in that transition,” she said.

The company can appeal to social workers at any point in their lives, whether they’re recent graduates, longtime professionals in the social work field now looking for more variety, or semi-retired workers looking for a part-time job or a second career.

“I think that just fits with a certain portion of social workers,” Hilger said.

Adams agreed that the job doesn’t need to say “social work” for a social worker to enjoy it or feel they can be proficient at it. “You just need to open yourself up [to the possibility].”

Enterprising Social Work

Upshaw, who left her mother’s company in 2006, now teaches at both the School of Social Work and the Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University.

She’s also worked for the not-for-profit Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin Inc. as their leader of financial services.

“I really credit the lessons my mom taught me as a social worker,” she said.

Upshaw said she feels like the field of social work fits well between the intersection of entrepreneurial enterprises and social change. A big question for her is how to meet the needs of people and communities affected by protracted social problems like homelessness, poverty and violence who could benefit most from social workers using social enterprise and innovation to effect positive change.

She said one of her mother’s legacies is to encourage a generation of social workers to think about howto use entrepreneurial possibilities in their own way.

It’s also a pursuit her sister has taken on.

People don’t think twice if you have a business degree and are looking for a job, because you can field it into any type of career, Adams said. “I would like people to think about that more with social work.”

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