Today's Topic



Ye Olde
Social Worker

Natalia J. Garland

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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.

Probably the 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.

Closely 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.

Some social 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)

[NOTE: For 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 (written 05/22/06).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2002, 2003 Natalia J. Garland