Academic journal article Social Work

Occupational Social Work for the 21st Century

Academic journal article Social Work

Occupational Social Work for the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Work is an essential, defining component of most people s lives, serving both instrumental and expressive purposes among individuals and their families. As the 20th century ends, economic restructuring and radical changes in welfare policy are producing increasing social dislocation and disadvantage among both employed and unemployed people in the United States. Such disadvantage is experienced particularly strongly by women, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and youths (Blank, 1997; Hale, 1997; Holzer, 1996b; Jargowsky, 1997; Wilson, 1996). Despite the fact that social workers historically have focused their practice acumen on the needs of poor and oppressed people, occupational social work practice is not reported in evaluations of welfare-to-work or employment and job training programs (Besharov, Germanis, & Rossi, 1997; Herr, Halpern, & Wagner, 1995; Quint, Musick, & Ladner, 1994). Although some social workers practice occupational social work in varied government, school, and medical settings (Bargal & Katan, 1998), most of the literature in this field of specialization is directed at practice with employed people in work organizations (Kurzman & Akabas, 1993; Straussner, 1990), not with unemployed people in work-enhancement programs.

This article follows the direction of Lewis (1997) and Ozawa (1980) to suggest that the social work profession is missing the opportunity to have a significant practice effect on the increasingly dire occupational needs of poor people. Specifically, occupational social workers should apply systematically the specialized knowledge and skills they have accumulated in workplace practice to practice in welfare-to-work and other work-program settings. This occupational practitioner would enact multiple workspecific roles concurrently at multiple systems levels. Although this reformulation focuses occupational social work practice on the work-related needs of unemployed and newly employed people, such practice would also pertain to the work needs of underemployed, dislocated, and working poor people, as well as to the needs of those who are comfortably employed.

Economic Restructuring and Welfare Policy Change

Economic Restructuring

National and global economic forces are associated with widespread worker dislocation and disadvantage, particularly among poor residents of beleaguered inner cities. First, technological advancements and reductions in entry-level manufacturing positions continue to necessitate a more educated workforce. In the next 10 years, occupations requiring at least an associate's degree are expected to grow faster than those requiring less education and training (Silvestri, 1997). At the same time, inner-city schools, in particular, are inadequate for providing the complex knowledge and skills needed for this educated workforce (Danziger, Sandefur, & Weinberg, 1994). Among other reasons, most urban schools have difficulty drawing a cadre of qualified teachers, and most lack adequate science and mathematics materials for their students (Murnane, 1994). Moreover, educational disadvantage varies by gender as well as socioeconomic status. Although men and women realize wage returns from increased education (Herman, 1997), with few exceptions men still outearn women at all educational levels (Blank, 1995; Hecker, 1998).

Second, expanded foreign production sites have lowered labor needs and opportunities in the United States for both entry-level and middle-management workers (Blank, 1995; Silvestri, 1997; Tausky, 1996). One recent analysis of inner-city employment advertisements found that only 433 jobs of more than 6,300 offered were appropriate for entry-level applicants (Binzen, 1998). In the same city, 65,000 adults on welfare faced a regional economy that expected to absorb 7,500 new workers a year at most (Parmley, 1998). A similar analysis reported that only 13 percent of all vacancies and 8 percent of all full-time vacancies offered work for unemployed poor people (Pease & Martin, 1997). …

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