The growing homogeneity of the social work workforce presents three problems. First, the NASW Code of Ethics insists that social workers "obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability." Social workers are trained in cultural competence, yet the profession as a whole doesn't reflect what it preaches. Second, professions that are perceived as pink-collar occupations (predominately female) in American society are typically stressful, marginalized, and underpaid. These careers are also seen as less demanding and prestigious by the general public. Third, a combination of social and political factors (judicial and legislative limitations to affirmative action, changing immigration patterns, welfare reform, restrictions on federal financial aid, etc.) can hinder access to higher education for disadvantaged groups. This can result in social work enrollments that remain radically different from the actual racial-ethnic distribution of society (Schilling et al., 2008). Given these realities, social work educators and practitioners must develop strategies to attract more men and students of color into the profession.
The lack of diversity in the profession is a major concern for the future of social work. In order to fully address this problem, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which handles accreditation and curricular guidelines for BSW and MSW programs, and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which handles the design and distribution of social work exams for state licensure, should consider these three recommendations.
- Decrease the number of hours students must complete in field instruction. Social work is the only profession that requires students to achieve a high numerical minimum (at least 900 hours) in the field before graduation. I believe this hurts recruitment because other more prestigious professions don't require such rigorous standards. Social work should return to its previous minimum of 500 hours so that more prospective students become interested in the field.
- Permit social work programs to offer part-time or extended degree options to accommodate working professionals. Most MSW programs require students to enroll full-time. This leaves little flexibility for students to choose a program that is the best fit for their circumstances. A part-time option could be attractive to prospective and current students who are raising families or need to rely on employer-sponsored health insurance.
- Request ASWB to redesign the Master's exam to cover both clinical and macro content. The current Master's exam format is clincally-oriented. This is a disservice to macro-practice social workers who want to apply for state licensure. A redesign of the Master's exam could eventually encourage CSWE to emphasize more macro content in advanced coursework and force more state boards of social work to offer a macro practice license.
Bottom line: Since 1980, social work has become a predominately white female profession whose client population is predominately disadvantaged people of color. These demographics show that social work is not meeting its social justice mission in recruitment and outreach. Accrediting bodies, such as CSWE and ASWB, must undergo curricular and administrative changes that will enhance this outreach and recruitment. This will help social work schools expand their macro-practice content and recruit more men and racial and ethnic minorities into the profession.
Source: Schilling, R.F., Morrish, J.N. & Liu, G (2008). Demographic trends in social work over a quarter-century in an increasingly female profession. Social Work, 53 (2) 103-114.
The NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice contains the latest demographic data on social workers by gender, race, and ethnicity.
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