Reading List: Social Work Workforce

Social Work Retention Research: Three Major Concerns


I came across the above scholarly article while doing a literature review and it was simultaneously the most fascinating, upsetting, and mind-boggling thing I have read relating to Social Work.  It did help to answer some questions I had and it is also pertinent to many of the discussions that have been taking place within the profession.  Namely defining Social Work or who is a Social Worker?

This debate about how to define Social Work has been happening since the dawn of the profession.  It was even a central issue in the first Social Work Chats discussion.  On my first day of Social Work school the professor teaching Foundations I asked the class what does a Social Worker do?  The Answer is… There is no answer.  There is no clear-cut definition of Social Work.  As the author, Linda Wermeling, points out, there are five definitions of the term.  This not only proves to be problematic for an MSW student trying to explain to family and friends what a social worker does; it is also a huge problem for a researcher studying the Social Work profession.  How do you study a profession when you lack a clear, singular definition of the profession?

Currently, Whitaker et al., (2006) found there were five definitions of the term “social worker” (p. 11). These definitions included individuals and employers using the title for those who may or may not have the required education or credential; several levels of state government licensure; and, individuals holding at least a bachelor’s degree from a CSWE accredited institution (Whitaker, et al., 2006). Whitaker et al. (2006) did not include alternative definitions of social worker used in other nations; the five definitions predominate in practice in the United States. Thus, deciding what groups or individuals actually made up the ranks of social worker was hugely problematic and thus, identifying an accurate dataset was problematic. In sum, workforce studies in social work had no dataset from which to draw a representative sample.

I have been questioning the validity of the statement that, compared to other professions, Social Workers have one of the lowest unemployment rates.  One figure was 2.3% which in this current job market is considered a low rate of unemployment.  Wermeling’s article only deepens my suspicion that that statistic is off.  Again, it comes back the definition problem.  Who is being counted as an unemployed Social Worker? Anyone with a Social Work degree? Licensed Social Workers?  NASW members?

As Wermeling states this inability to define Social Work prevents us from learning about our own profession, which can have dire consequences:

If social work cannot determine size, experience, and make-up of its membership, it cannot rationally plan for its academic and professional future. That is, how can the profession recruit and train individuals for careers in social work, without sufficient knowledge about its workforce? Further, without this knowledge it would not be possible for the profession to retain its workforce.

Wermeling goes on to conclude:

The profession itself appears to be in real jeopardy if it cannot lay claim to the term “social worker”; let alone maintain standards essential to classify social workers. Consider the jeopardy in which the public would find itself if only slightly more than half of physicians or attorneys held professional licenses or if a bit more than a quarter were members of AMA or the ABA. This finding speaks to longstanding and deeply disturbing aspects of the profession of social work that the profession’s leadership must promptly address.

What Wermeling is referring to when she mentions professional association membership, is that there are 600,000 people in the US holding Social Work degrees, but only 145,000 of them belong the NASW.  The National Association of Social Workers.  The Largest and most powerful professional Social Work association in the US.  The organization responsible for the professions code of ethics can only count 145,000 Social Workers as members.  I encourage you to read this article when you get the chance.  Linda Wermeling brings up excellent questions that we need to answer.  Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Posted by Rachel



2 comments on “Reading List: Social Work Workforce

  1. http://www.socialworker.com/jswve/content/view/48/50/
    I thought you might be interested in this article. It is not another definition but a desciption of how one author worked to recognize a philosophy of what being a social worker means.

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