Why is a Master of Social Work Necessary Today?
Social workers have a unique opportunity to perform fulfilling jobs that have an immediate positive impact on society. Their core work focuses on helping people in difficult or disadvantaged situations. However, this also means social workers are often fighting an uphill climb as they try to represent and care for those who have been ignored or mistreated. A report from the National Association of Social Workers puts this situation in perspective.
According to the article, social workers have emerged as a critical part of our work force, but they didn’t always have this prominence. Social work only began to emerge as a formalized practice in the 1800s. Since then, individuals serving in this field have been on the front lines in promoting social justice. The article further explained that when the industry comes together, social workers become instrumental in driving progress in society.
This need to come together as an industry is evident today, and it underpins the importance of the Master of Social Work degree. However, before we delve into some of the challenges social workers must be ready to tackle, let’s first look at some of the practical reasons to complete a Master of Social Work program.
Looking at the career benefits of an MSW
The social work industry is growing quickly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that average job growth for the period of 2014 to 2024 is 7 percent. The social work sector is expected to easily trump that figure, achieving 12 percent job expansion during that time. This amounts to approximately 74,800 positions in the field. What’s more, this growth is expected to touch a wide-range of segments within the sector. Counselors and other community and social service specialists can anticipate 12 percent job growth, as can social workers in general.
This rapid expansion can be attributed to a great deal of demand across the health care and social services sector. It is worth noting, however, that specialization can have a huge impact on job prospects. Child, family and school social work will experience average job growth (6 percent) as a result of policy changes that will limit the funding available for hires in that segment. The mental health and substance abuse branch of social work, on the other hand, is likely to see meteoric growth, with job expansion hitting 19 percent. The health care social worker segment is also anticipated to grow by 19 percent.
These figures highlight the rapid rise in demand for social workers that is expected in the immediate future, and research from Payscale indicates that individuals with an MSW degree can expect significant pay increases compared to those with a bachelor’s degree. Social workers with a BSW receive a median annual salary of $36,231. Conversely, Payscale indicates that an annual salary of $34,912 is the baseline for individuals with an MSW degree. Salaries for social workers holding an MSW tend to experience salaries ranging from that base of $34,912 up to $64,102. Essentially, the median salary for BSW holders is equivalent to the entry point for those with an MSW.
Salary increases aren’t the only advantage. Payscale found that, of the more than 1,000 respondents to its MSW salary data, job satisfaction rated out as “extremely satisfied,” highlighting the way that an MSW can set individuals up for fulfilling work.
The positive momentum emphasized by the BLS and Payscale is echoed in “The 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey.” The study analyzed operations across a wide-range of nonprofit settings to get a clear idea of big-picture trends. This research has been performed annually since 2007 and it found that nonprofits have been climbing to new heights in their impact on the U.S. economy. In 2013 alone, the sector generated $905.9 billion in contributions to the economy, a figure that represents 5.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Over the past few years, the number of nonprofits has been increasing, the degree to which those organizations are hiring has risen, and the amount of funds they are handling has grown. In 2015, 51 percent of nonprofits increased their staff sizes. Just 15 percent reduce staff. What’s more, staff reduction peaked in 2010, when 24 percent were cutting jobs compared to just 34 percent adding new staff. The percentage of nonprofits cutting staff has since declined every year with one minor exception – from 2013 to 2014 the percentage of nonprofits decreasing staff size changed 1 percent from 17 to 18. It would then drop a full three percent in 2015, reaching the lowest total since 2008, when just 4 percent of nonprofits reduced staff.
While the research points to the rapid job growth happening in the nonprofit sector – something that is exciting for social workers – it also emphasizes the key problem of job retention and succession planning. Finding qualified staff represented the second largest hiring challenge facing nonprofits (with compensation coming in as the greatest issue), and the struggles to find qualified workers are leading to ongoing challenges retaining top performers.
These challenges highlight a large-scale problem facing the social work sector and one of the primary overarching reasons to consider an MSW – there is a growing need for leadership excellence in the sector.
Considering the need for leaders in social work
The Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey highlights how many nonprofits are struggling to retain talented professionals and handle succession planning – though some improvements are being made. Reports coming out of Alaska and Washington highlight what often happens when organizations struggle to retain staff.
An exhaustive staff survey from the Alaska Office of Children Services found that the employee retention problem facing many social work organizations has created major operational challenges in the agency. Essentially, the best practices surrounding children services are so complex and nuanced that they are difficult for new employees to learn. At the same time, they are built with room for interpretation as social workers face unique situations and need to think on their feet to solve problems.
The issue, according to the study, is that frequent turnover creates a situation in which social work teams end up experiencing extremely varied and inconsistent interpretations of these guidelines. This in turn creates an operational climate that breeds uncertainty and makes it extremely difficult to keep up with day-to-day work demands.
A report from Investigate West found a similar situation in Washington, where struggles to maintain funding and retain high-performing social workers is leading to problems in the state foster care system. This is creating a difficult dynamic in which social workers are unable to devote the time and attention to foster parents that they need, leading those caregivers into challenges meeting the needs of the children they are responsible for. This leaves everybody in the partnership struggling to keep up with everyday demands, causing frustration.
These issues put the need for leadership in the social work sector under a microscope. The problem here isn’t a lack of jobs for social workers – the Investigate West report highlighted one social worker leaving the state system to obtain a job with a 30 percent pay increase in private practice. Instead, the reports emphasize the overarching industry need for communicators, managers, and administrators who understand the ins and outs of social work and can drive the systemic changes needed to help nonprofits achieve their missions in a sustainable way.
Research from MassDevelopment shows these challenges aren’t isolated to a couple of states in the western part of the country. When highlighting current and future issues facing the sector, it put a lack of qualified employees on its list. Other key issues included shifting budget policies in the public sector and growing demand for specialized areas of service.
All of these problems are, at least in part, resolved by great leaders who can push for change within social work organizations. Whether it is care providers who are highly specialized and extremely talented setting new standards for quality or administrators who can eliminate barriers to service, leadership is essential.
MSW programs are designed to help social workers take the next step and become leaders in the industry, something that is especially important as the entire population dynamic in the U.S. changes.
Shifting population puts social work in the spotlight
The MassDevelopment study highlighted demand for elder care due to an aging population as a vital challenge for the social work sector. This is echoed in U.S. Census data, which found that longer life spans are combining with other population dynamics to change the proportions of the U.S. population. In 2012, 62.8 percent of the population was considered of working age (18 to 64 years old), while 13.7 percent was aged 65 years or older. By 2030, those figures will skew to 57.3 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively. This shift will continue up to 2050, when 20.9 percent of the population will be older than 65. Furthermore, in 2012, just 1.8 percent of the population was aged 80 to 84 years, and 1.9 percent was 85 or older. Those figures will rise to 3.2 percent and 4.5 percent by 2050.
All of this data points to a simple reality that the social work industry must be prepared for – the number of people likely to need social services is expanding while the portion of the population capable of caring for them diminishes.
This problem, when considered alongside the other trends across the sector, emphasize that social work efficiency and quality will need to continually improve moving forward. If it does not, there simply won’t be enough workers to fill roles. The MassDevelopment study pointed to a Boston Globe report stating that employment growth may shrink not because of a lack of demand, but because the worker shortage will be so great that the market will suffer as a result.
These issues signal a need for leadership in the sector, and individuals who pursue an MSW have an opportunity to emerge as the leaders the social work sector needs.