Facebook Twitter Google Plus LinkedIn

Can We Please Get to Work Already?

By Rachel L. West, MSW, LMSW
The Political Social Worker

I think it is safe to say that most social workers realize there is a problem.  Every day I go into the LinkedIn discussion forums and there is someone discussing the poor employment outlook for the profession.

  • Pay is too low
  • There aren’t enough jobs
  • Many agencies are only hiring fee-for-service
  • Employers making unrealistic demands
  • Social work degrees are a bad return on investment
  • NASW isn’t advocating for social workers
  • Too few opportunities to advance
  • Too many barriers to getting licensed (particularly for the LCSW)

There was a great article written by Audrey Haven which you can read here.  The article, which was later shared in the NPSW discussion group on LinkedIn, generated many comments.  A fair number of those commenting on the article felt validated.  As new social workers they had experienced many of the same experiences as the article’s author.

Unfortunately discussions like this are not anything new.  If you take the time to read varies blogs and social work discussion boards you will undoubtedly find the same issues popping up again and again.  Every now and then this will lead to the question of unionization and the effectiveness of our existing professional associations.  Some say that they want to put pressure on NASW to take action while others want to start a separate organization. Either way nothing happens.

That is the problem.  We acknowledge and discuss these concerns openly but no one really wants to take action. Creating real change would require dedication and hard work.  It is not a battle that would be won in a year or even two years.  It would require a group of social workers who are willing and able to put in hard work over many years.  In the past couple of years I have come up with a few theories as to why it is so hard to organize social workers.

  1. Stigma towards unions:  Even among social workers there is an anti-union sentiment and often times this is where attempts to organize the profession get stuck. We get bogged down in debate on whether or not a social work union is the way to go. I fully support the idea of unionization and find it bizarre that any number of social workers would be against the idea. Particularly when you consider the professions roots in labor organizing.
  2. Too busy: Organizing, especially without financial resources (which would be the case if the NASW did not support such a movement) means that all the work has to be done by volunteers.  Many social workers are already very busy between work and their personal life.  It seems like most are unable to commit significant time towards such efforts.
  3. Fear of jeopardizing their career: Some are hesitant to take a strong public stance on this issue because they fear it will hurt their career.  I cannot say that there isn’t some validity to this concern.


What do you think are some barriers to organizing social workers?

How can we organizing social workers to address the problems we face?

What problems do you feel need to be addressed?

Please feel free leave your answer in the comment section.  You can also email me at rwest@politicalsocialworker.org.  If you email me please let me know if you want to comment to be public or private.

By ÁWá (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.


  1. I think you hit on some important individualized barriers, Rachel. There is also some institutional work to be done. For example, many legislatures have shown favor towards licensure laws and title protection that means that non-social workers cannot take social work jobs. But, employers faced with professionals refusing to accept $19,500 per year jobs, change the job title from “Social Worker” to “Behavioral Specialist”. The other side of the change must be institutional. That means improving service to clients in order to push out those conglomerates that push down wages and dilute the science of what social workers do. It also means working to get insurance providers (including the big Fed) to articulate the billable status of the social worker starting at the BSW level. Two big agenda items, but important additions.

  2. Thank you for posting this article. The first issue we need to address is to re-examine our identity and reclaim the original spirit. I was
    initially drawn to social work because of its ethics but it can become quite frustrating when those ethics cannot be translated into practice. I think the first thematic problem that needs to be addressed is that change takes enormous commitment and often times, you need to draw on resources that might be a part of the problem. It became easier to advocate accommodation masked as change rather than challenge an entrenched power structure especially when the incentive is billed towards the least amount of movement.

  3. It feels so good to hear these discussions normalizing the downside of an admirable profession.

    I have been a social worker for ( gulp) over thirty years and have witnessed the advances other female dominated professions have made in pay equity issues, except social work. I think social workers need to decide whether they are willing to advocate for themselves. If so they do not need to reinvent the wheel, they just need to consult with their colleagues in nursing. The nursing profession has made great strides in advocating for better jobs and better pay within that profession; precisely the skills that social workers need to develop.


What are your thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: