Tracy Whitaker, director of NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies: “This study gives us food for thought as the tools change.”
Technology can improve efficiency in the workplace for child welfare social workers, but does a generation gap keep progress from reaching its full potential?
A new NASW Center for Workforce Studies report titled Child Welfare Social Workers’ Attitudes Toward Mobile Technology Tools: Is there a Generation Gap? attempts to answer that question.
In partnership with the Family Services Technology Council, a 28-question survey was developed and administered electronically to members of the NASW Child Welfare Specialty Practice Section. A total of 283 people responded.
The survey respondents were separated into two categories by age: 35 and younger and those older than 35.
Surprisingly, the two generations were closer in agreement in their responses than they were dissimilar, said Tracy Whitaker, director of the NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice.
“The results of this survey challenged many preconceived notions of attitudes in how different generations view the use of technology in the workplace,” she said. “This study gives us food for thought as the tools change in the workplace. At the same time, it gives us insight into what social workers think and believe.”
Today’s workplace includes traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. Each brings a different perspective and experience to the job, the study explains. However, the workforce is changing. The study notes that approximately two workers are exiting the workforce for every one person that is entering.
“This is a particular concern for the child welfare system that struggles to recruit and retain qualified workers for high-pressure jobs that have the potential to be draining,” the study states.
It adds that child welfare agencies are about 10 years behind in using technology effectively in comparison with the private sector. It notes that in many parts of the country, child welfare administrators use information technology, particularly mobile computing tools, to increase the efficiency of overburdened social workers and to capture the most up-to-date information possible.
The tools social workers can use include digital cameras, laptop computers and mobile phones with e-mail access. While these tools are available today, the influence of age on attitudes toward technology in the workplace has been unstudied.
In terms of tools used in the field, standard mobile phones were used by both younger and older social workers (82 percent and 84 percent respectively).
Very few of either group used mobile phones with e-mail and Internet technology in the field. Most respondents in both categories never used a laptop computer or personal tablet computer in the field.
The overwhelming majority of both groups frequently used a paper notebook or clipboard in the field, and 32 percent of both age groups reported frequent use of a digital camera in the field.
Respondents were receptive to the idea of using mobile technology in the field.
Nine in 10 younger social workers reported they had self-confidence in working with mobile technologies, compared with 70 percent of older social workers.
In other statements regarding the use of technology as a work aid, however, older social workers responded more optimistically than their younger counterparts. For example, when asked if it was important to connect to data and the Internet outside the office, 75 percent of older social workers agreed, compared to 54 percent of younger respondents.
The statement, “Access to information and case histories from different agencies is essential,” had 82 percent agreement from older social workers; 52 percent of the younger segment agreed.
Both age groups disagreed at more than 80 percent with the statement that remote access is too complex to provide any benefit or value.
The survey examined safety issues as well.
Nearly half of younger social workers (45 percent) disagreed with the statement that it is dangerous to take technology tools to the client site. Older social workers disagreed at 56 percent.
Older social workers agreed (82 percent) that that mobile technology tools make field work safer for the workforce in child welfare. The younger segment agreed at 76 percent.
When it comes to client confidentiality, the majority of both age groups disagreed with the statement that mobile technology tools compromise client confidentiality (69 percent older, 64 percent younger).
Older social workers also embraced the idea that mobile technology tools help social workers accomplish more in less time (96 percent older and 88 percent younger).
Older social workers continued their optimistic view in questions that deal with client engagement.
For the statement, “Mobile tools help to improve client engagement overall,” 55 percent of older social workers agreed, compared with 52 percent of younger workers.
When asked, “When it comes to client engagement, mobile tools make caseworkers more effective,” the older segment agreed at 63 percent, compared with 53 percent of younger workers.
Whitaker said the survey results show overall that most social workers appear receptive to the use of mobile technology tools in the field. She noted that even though only a small portion of the respondents actually use advanced technology in the field, it is a safe assumption that more tools will be introduced to the workforce to help reduce redundancy, increase social work safety and boost service delivery.
“It’s interesting to challenge and investigate some of the functions that are happening in the workplace because technology is quickly becoming more advanced, user-friendly and financially accessible,” Whitaker said.