Has anyone else noticed that there do not seem to be many
old social workers employed in social service agencies?
Where have they all gone? What happens to young social
workers as they mature into their middle years? What happens
to those who came into social work as a mid-life career
change? Where are the senior citizen destinations to which
they have journeyed?
Social work is a
profession in which the worker's age should be of benefit to
the employer. The older worker should be more experienced,
have more areas of expertise, and conduct themselves with more
confidence. I suspect, however, that the older worker
probably suffers from more job stress and dissatisfaction,
increased financial pressures with the passing years, and a
lack of job advancement or mobility.
What are the
career options for someone who has been involved in social
work for a number of years? Is career advancement realistic?
If the beginning professional starts in a basic line position:
that is, as someone who carries a caseload of some sort and
has direct patient contact, is it reasonable to expect that
every worker will naturally want to advance beyond that? Some
workers are dedicated to patient care. They thrive on the
relationship, have a deep sense of altruism, and a conviction
that they can make the world better one person at a time.
For such a
worker, the only options for organizational advancement are in
supervision or administration. This would probably mean
giving up patient contact in order to focus on employee and
public contact. One skill does not necessarily follow the
other. A good clinical worker, for example, may or may not
make a good hospital administrator. The business concept of
career goals may not really be applicable to social work.
only viable option for the worker who loves clinical work
would be to develop a private practice. This would permit the
worker to follow their theoretical inclinations more
faithfully, further develop their niche of specialties, and do
less repetitive and tedious paperwork. Private practice,
however, also requires an ability to work alone and to manage
the fiscal aspect.
Could this be
where some talented older workers have gone? If so, then this
is a sad loss for social service agencies. Employers
apparently do not offer (or do not have the means to offer)
incentives to keep their experienced workers. Another sad
comment is that younger workers can be started at a lower
salary and will require fewer expenditures in health insurance.
Of course, there
are educational goals that motivate and reward the studious
worker. Some workers will devote considerable time and money
to getting a Ph.D. or D.S.W. Some colleges offer various
certificate programs that consume less of your precious free
time and limited income. The N.A.S.W. offers its own
credentials and specialty certifications. These have certain
requirements of work experience, exams, and fees. Some
workers enjoy this kind of challenge. For others, it seems
superfluous. There is also the possibility of institute
training. This requires adherence to a theoretical background
and an intense investment in personal psychotherapy. Some
workers find this exciting and fulfilling. For others, it
would be non-productive.
connected to the pursuit of education is the area of writing
and publishing. There are more mental health books published
than anyone could ever read. But you never know, you might be
the next one to contribute something significant to the study
of human behavior. Although publishing a book must be
professionally thrilling, unless it makes the best sellers'
list you probably will not make much money from it.
Back in the
1980's, it was possible and acceptable for the line worker to
go from job to job for the purpose of working with different
populations. Social work skills were probably more generalist
and transferable back then and jobs were more plentiful.
Someone who had worked with a schizophrenic population, for
example, might quickly find a new job in a nursing home--just
for the purpose of avoiding burnout and increasing their
repertoire of skills. Jobs are more scarce nowadays, and many
employers require prior experience in the same field.
workers will leave the profession. Some of the Ph.D.'s and
D.S.W.'s will go into teaching. Others will move on to
unrelated fields that offer better pay and a different work
environment. The times are always changing, and people's
values and needs also change.
Whether you are
a young graduate, in the prime of life, or counting the days
until the pension check starts coming in, social work is a
profession that demands ongoing education, licensing, and
adaptation to political realities. Before your career is over,
you may have to totally reinvent yourself.
(Written 08/19/02 - Revised 12/01/03)
other essays on similar topics, see Social Workers in Loan Debt
(written 05/12/08), Practicing Therapy Without a License
(written 07/24/06), C.E.U.'s and M.S.W.'s
Until we meet