‘We Need to Recruit’

Consider the facts: Schools of social work cannot train and graduate enough students to meet demand. Social work careers are perceived as stressful jobs that pay poorly. More than half of social workers surveyed by NASW have student loan debts between $10,000 and $40,000. Students say educational debt is keeping them from pursuing a social work career.

With that in mind, NASW posed the following question to participants of the 2010 Social Work Congress in Washington last April: “What should be done to ensure that the benefits and rewards of a social work career continue to attract enough people to the profession?”

Congress-goers answered with the following imperative: “Empirically demonstrate to prospective recruits the value of the social work profession in both social and economic terms.”

Some of that evidence is already trickling in. Just in time for the congress, NASW released the results of a study of social workers’ compensation. The results dispel the myth that social work pay is dismal.

According to the study, the median annual salary for social workers with less than five years of experience is $43,700; those with 10-19 years of experience earn a median salary of $52,000; and those with 20-29 years of experience earn a median annual salary of $60,000.

A recently revamped “Be A Social Worker” website allows visitors to find out how much social work jobs in their region pay by using a salary calculator. [Site now The Social Work Career Center.]

Still, NASW continues to push for higher salaries that recognize the wide range of services social workers provide and the education they must earn to do their jobs. The association promotes passage of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Social Worker Reinvestment Act, which would secure federal and state investment in the social work profession.

And there’s hope for social work students who fear being saddled with debt. A number of state departments of social services offer financial assistance in exchange for students’ commitment to work for them upon graduation.

The North Carolina Child Welfare Education Collaborative, for example, offers tuition assistance to social work students, who in return must work for at least a year, in direct practice or supervision of direct practice, at a state social service agency.

Not only is the program attracting social work students to a career in child welfare, but research finds that their employment retention rate is well above the national average.

Anna Scheyett, associate dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work, believes the collaborative is a model that could be used in other areas of study.

“We need the best and the brightest, but we also need to be able to support them,” said Scheyett, who was elected this year to the NASW Board of Directors and helped facilitate the recruitment breakout session during the congress. “One of the things we struggle with as a public school is financial aid. Our students come out on average owing $36,000 in loans.”

Scheyett said she interprets the recruitment imperative to mean that the profession also needs to show to the public that “doing good is good business.”

“Social work is about achieving positive outcomes in terms of social justice and quality of life, but it also has a tremendous economic impact,” she told NASW News. “Society needs to understand the value added of having a social worker perform certain duties.”

A perennial problem of the profession, Scheyett explained, is the public’s lack of understanding of just what it is social workers do. “It is hard to recruit people to a profession when they don’t understand it,” she said, noting that explaining the value of social work continues to require myth-busting. “We do more than just child welfare — not that that isn’t important.”

Scheyett hopes the profession will have made the case to the public that social work is a viable profession by the next Social Work Congress in 2015. “Many social workers of the baby boomer generation will be retiring soon, and we not only must recruit more people to the field, but we need to recruit the future leaders of the profession as well.”

That is why NASW co-convened a Student Congress with 400 social work students from across the country. The students viewed portions of the Social Work Congress online, ranked the adopted imperatives and created imperatives of their own.

While students supported the recruitment imperative adopted by the congress, they said it “must be accompanied by improved economic benefits such as loan forgiveness and/or increased salaries to avoid false promises.”