When I was headed to graduate school in social work in 1979, my No. 1 reason for choosing this field was to be able to help people solve their life problems. I was concerned about the injustices in the world and wanted to be a part of the solution in making life better for those who were struggling.
Today, as head of Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, I see, through our social work student internship program that although today's students seek wider exposure and opportunities during their social work graduate program, the core reasons for selecting social work as a field of practice have not changed that much.
Despite the economy over the past several years, and the dearth of available jobs for those with an undergraduate degree, the enrollment in social work graduate programs has remained constant. In addition, graduate schools of social work report that although students today are still seeking a meaningful helping profession in choosing social work, they are also much more consumer-oriented. They enter graduate school wanting to know who will supervise them, where their field placements will be, and how the school will offer exposure to a variety of skill sets needed by today's social worker.
They recognize the reality that in today's not-for-profit world, social workers who want to provide direct services — counsel a victim of domestic violence, provide geriatric care management to an elderly person or help children remain safe in their homes — must also understand their program's budget, communicate how their service makes an impact in the community, and be able to translate what they do into a compelling story for donors. They might need to know how to use an electronic record and how to obtain meaningful outcomes data to give to their funders. Direct care workers are no longer silowed as just doing direct service. They need to be engaged in all aspects of the social work business in order for the organization to be successful.
Schools of social work are paying close attention to the new needs of their students, keeping up to date with current places of employment for social workers and learning more about the various skills needed in all aspects of the field. Many social work graduate programs have begun offering more nonprofit management courses as well as dual degree opportunities such as a masters in social work and public health.
But as much as the educational arena is changing, social work professors still believe that a solid foundation in social work practice is critical to the development of an effective social worker, whether they end up in administration, policy or direct service. This foundation embraces the notion that one must first understand, at the grass-roots level, the problems that exist and how the human psyche copes with them. A commitment to social justice accompanies all aspects of the social work profession and may be the one component that separates this profession from others.
Many Jews who work for Jewish agencies as communal workers do so because it is their way of identifying Jewishly. This does not simply mean helping Jewish individuals but it does mean that they are able to express feelings of identification, heritage and connection through their work. Working for an organization such as JFCS can serve as a part of a person's Jewish life or can be the sole connection to one's Judaism.
Having an opportunity to help Jews in need through the life cycle — at times of health and happiness (e.g., with adoption) and at times of crisis and loss (death of a loved one, illness, financial loss) draws on Jewish traditions and rituals. This familiarity among all Jews is powerful and a source of deep connection for those who work at a Jewish agency.
It is important to acknowledge the social work profession as one that trains its members to value the needs of others through compassion, empowerment and self sufficiency, safety, mental health, dignity of all, social justice, advocacy and independence.
Paula Goldstein is the president and CEO of Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.