Social workers have always been underpaid. One reason for this is that women, in general, are underpaid and 75% of social workers are women. Another reason is the broad nature of our profession, which spans across many occupations. In this vast playing field, it is often hard to see how social workers make unique contributions. As a result, people with less training are easily able to stake a claim and undercut professional social work jobs at lower salaries. Probably most important, however, is that for most social workers, the mission trumps the money. We don’t go into social work to make money, but to make a difference. “I do this work with all my heart and not because of the money,” said one social worker recently on a LinkedIn discussion thread about social work salaries.
A few years ago, experts were predicting that pressures on government budgets would shrink the job market for social workers. That hasn’t happened. Instead, budget pressures are creating social work opportunities. For example, addicts that once were sentenced to terms in over-crowded prisons are now being referred to treatment, providing a market for substance abuse-trained social workers. Our aging population is creating a growing need for medical and public health specialists. New legislation requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of mental health treatment on a basis comparable to physical health treatment will create additional social work opportunities.
The new climate of accountability creates a demand for social workers interested in evaluating programs and measuring outcomes. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects solid growth for social workers in almost every category, especially those interested in working with the aged or in under-served rural communities. But the projected salaries rarely top $60,000.
Now the times may be a-changin’.
Social workers are in demand today, and they are beginning to realize that pursuing their passion doesn’t mean settling for less money than they’re worth. However, finding a job that rewards both the soul and the pocketbook requires a serious search.
And it may take longer than the average three months. Finding the right job means investing time and effort.
“Most people don’t have the time or don’t take the time to do that, and it really makes a difference for them. If we can get people to focus so that they can spend time doing the research and building their network, they can make more informed choices and ultimately have more choices,” says Carol Nesslein Doelling, MS, author of Social Work Career Development: A Handbook for Job Hunting and Career Planning 2nd Edition (2005).
Carrie Lew, EdD, LCSW, director of professional development and alumni relations at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, has advised students in their careers for over 18 years. “People should take their job search seriously, research the organization via the internet and network with colleagues to learn about the organization to determine a good fit. There’s nothing more fulfilling than contributing your talent and energy to an organization you believe strongly in,” she says.
Part of your research also means knowing where the funding is going and what social work skills are in greatest demand. It means a thoughtful definition of the skills and education that set one apart and the ability to articulate them — to sell oneself. And it means being prepared to negotiate a reasonable compensation. Additional ideas and information about preparing for a career in social work are included in the article, “Better Wages for Social Worker’s — Why Not?” that I wrote for the professional trade journal Social Work Today.
Social workers are great advocates for their clients. There is no reason why we can’t (and shouldn’t) learn to advocate for ourselves. We need to have the self-efficacy about our own professional abilities to command the salaries we deserve. Ultimately, it is right for those we serve. The better our own self-concept is the better able we will be to help others believe in themselves.
An MSW@USC faculty member, Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment. She earned both her MSW and DSW degrees at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva Universit5y. In addition to teaching, she is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach and lives in Santa Barbara, California. Dr. Jones started her career as a social worker running a group home for teenage girls in the inner city of East Orange, New Jersey where, among other things, she learned to make a soufflé in a roasting pan to feed the large brood of teenagers and staff that she was responsible for. Learn more about Dr. Jones at Lynn K. Jones’ website.