Outlook on the Future
Prospects for New Professional Social Workers
Editor’s Note: As a special feature of this issue on new professionals and social work students, several social workers in the early stages of their careers were invited to share their experiences. The following article captures the writers’ personal points of view, while also recounting the challenges endured and opportunities embraced by their new professional colleagues. Even more striking than the clear picture that each piece paints, is the juxtaposition between the stark realities of what it is like to be entering the profession at this time, alongside the sense of hope that each writer conveys about the possibilities for the future. Please note that the NASW-NYC New Professionals Task Force will host a special forum on March 25th entitled “Harnessing Your Power: How to Positively Effect Working Conditions”. See page three for more information.
We Must Not Travel This Road Alone
Gwendolyn Butler, LMSW, Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services Manhattan Greenberg Clinic
In May of 2006, I graduated from the New York University Silver School of Social Work. I was excited to enter the social work field as a professional, and had intended to do so through different avenues. Not long after graduation I began working at an outpatient mental health clinic, and soon after I was elected to NASW-NYC Board membership. I also continued the work I had begun as a social work student, as an antiracist organizer, intentionally functioning in everyday life from an antiracist lens.
Becoming a professional in my chosen field proved to be fulfilling in ways I had not expected, and this was because of the many ways I was able to function as a social worker; i.e. clinician, working with policy, and through community organizing. Social work provided me the lateral expanse to operate in as many areas I wished, still calling it Social Work. There have been challenges as well. While social work is undeniably satisfying and rewarding on a personal level, it is largely undervalued and poorly compensated. At times, less than acceptable working conditions have made it an even greater challenge as it indirectly reinforces the low value placed on social workers. And how can I omit the restrictions being placed on new social workers to obtain licensing? These challenges make it difficult to achieve parity with other health professionals who may be appreciated with a greater level of respect. For these, and other reasons, many social workers are tempted with opting out of the field to pursue other financially rewarding but less emotionally gratifying work.
Having supportive networks such as the New Professional Task Force, as well as an intimate social work support group, has proven to be a resuscitative lifeline that provides new professionals, such as myself, with common ground to share thoughts, ideas, and the opportunity to plan for a better professional future. These networks also provide a safe space to share frustrations, personal and professional, and support for each other through peer supervision. In this respect, maintaining connections with organized support groups, former classmates, colleagues, and senior workers in the field are a necessity for the new professional. In a sense, it is self-care for the caregivers that we are.
As I continue to maneuver through the field of social work, sharpening my gift and finding my niche, it is imperative that I not travel this road alone. Social workers are advocates and activists for the greater society, and in today’s time, for our own field — fighting for parity, licensing, and loan forgiveness, with an ongoing focus on supporting each other.
Correcting the Inner Dissonance
Megan Wilen, LCSW, Psychological Counselor, Lehman College Counseling Center
I don’t think I fully understood what it meant to be a social worker when I started at Columbia University School of Social Work in the fall of 2002. As an early career social worker my job description is so broad that I don’t have one; what is expected of me can change on a weekly basis. I have been employed at the same agency since October 2004, a rarity among my colleagues, and my responsibilities have escalated exponentially.
My education did not prepare me for the reality of my job. I am challenged to perform tasks that seem antithetical to my training, like concurrent note-taking. I have had to adapt to the changing reality of being a mental health social worker in a system ruled by Medicaid, extremely large caseloads, and disintegrating COPS payments. Having to negotiate this system has made me resourceful (thank you Google) and my high caseload has forced me to elevate my therapeutic skill set beyond what I thought possible less than six years out of school. Though, at times, I have truly felt burdened by the dubious title of line worker, feeling more like a factory worker than a social work professional.
I realized quickly that if I wanted to maintain a career as a social worker, I would have to find a way to correct the dissonance I was feeling. I could either change my ideals and ethics or I could work to change the system. I was lucky enough to connect with NASW-NYC New Professionals Task Force. We have moved from being a small group that met to discuss the difficulties we were having at our own jobs to being a mobilizing taskforce that aims to advocate for, support, and connect new professionals.
What started as a selfish escape has become an endeavor of which I am most proud. Whether talking to other new career social workers while at a social meet-up in a bar, listening to the Philharmonic on the Great Lawn, or sponsoring a workshop on job search or self care, I realize that my struggles are the same as most other new professional workers. I feel less isolated. But I also see anguish on the faces of task force members; fear about the ability to maintain an apartment on the salary agencies are offering, anxiety about staying in a job that is not providing adequate supervision to get licensed, and worry that they will have to leave a career they are passionate about due to inevitable burnout from high caseload size. As I have watched our membership swell from 10 to 412 task force members in little over 3 years, I am concerned about the number of new professionals who are struggling. However, I am confident that this strife is being harnessed and mobilized to create change.
Gifts the Social Work Profession Has Provided Me
Myrna M. Noble, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor, Puerto Rican Family Institute Bronx Mental Health Clinic
Teaching, empowering, and healing are the “gifts” the social work profession has provided me. At the beginning of my career, I was able to work more directly with clients. As I develop in my career, the opportunities for administrative tasks were presented. But the work that is done directly with clients is my motivation.
There was one case that always stays with me. In the beginning of my professional social work career, I met a dad and his seven-year-old daughter. Teaching the dad techniques on communicating with his daughter and structuring tasks that would assist her in concentrating was inspiring. It was beautiful to see how he was able to implement techniques at home that we went over in sessions and make effective change in his daughter’s progress.
So many of my colleagues share similar experiences of feeling the work they do with clients is the most fulfilling part of their career. However, challenges are a natural part of the work of a new and growing professional. The demands of paperwork and managing outside systems have challenged me and many colleagues. Although managing systems is essential in the work we do, the frustrations are inevitable when the demands, at times, take away from the direct contact with clients. Whenever the stressors of the job make me question my work, I think of that dad and his seven-year-old daughter, and the other families strengthened by my work.
Networking with other social workers has helped me in sharing information, receiving and giving support, and developing linkages. It also provides a place to see the challenges and successes other social workers face. Today, among new social work colleagues, licensing has posed both a challenge and a benefit. The passing of the licensing examination is the biggest challenge for the social workers in my network. Learning ways to pass this standardized exam is a skill that many of my colleagues are working to learn. On the other hand, licensing has offered an opportunity to greater professionalize social workers and provide standards for the profession.
Overall, the long-term prospects for new professional social workers can be prosperous. Social work is a profession that one needs to want to do and have in the heart. Whether providing services to clients as a psychotherapist, assisting with discharge planning in a hospital, organizing a community, or so much more, social workers can do various tasks within the scope of work. When I am asked — why social work? My response is social work is a healing profession that gives me options. I can be versatile within my career. Therefore, with the right guidance, creative choices, and continuing to educate oneself, the prospects for social workers are immeasurable.