Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work Labor Market: A First Look

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work Labor Market: A First Look

Article excerpt

If the supply of social workers is inadequate to meet the demand for social work services, their wages must be rising. To an economist this is virtually axiomatic. But when I tried to verify it, I found virtually no literature on the social work labor market as a whole, and no data that would allow me to apply a labor market economist's traditional tools of analysis. This article reviews the findings from my initial efforts to understand the labor market for social workers and lays out an agenda for data collection and research that could provide a definitive picture of this important segment of the U.S. labor force. (The longer study is available from the author). The purpose is as much to define questions as to answer them.

Available Databases and Their Limitations

One excellent quantitative description of the social work profession does exist: Who We Are: A Second Look by Gibelman and Schervish (1997). Its valuable insights can only be partial, however, because it is not representative of the whole population of people who provide social work services (see Gibelman, 2000). The database used, which numbered 155,000 for 1995, is the demographic and professional background information collected on the NASW membership application and renewal forms. NASW's membership criteria exclude many people listed as social workers in U.S. census data. This is reasonable, because NASW adheres to specified professional standards, whereas individuals wishing to describe themselves to the U.S. census as social workers can do so. Because NASW membership is voluntary, social workers who become members are almost certain to be different from those who are eligible but choose not to join. This is an important limitation for labor market analysis, because the ways in which members differ from nonmembers--even from nonmembers who meet NASW's membership criteria--are likely to affect their labor market status and work behavior and, thus, estimates of wage rates, employment rates, and labor market characteristics and behavior more generally.

In contrast, the Current Population Survey (CPS)--the U.S. Census-administered monthly survey of the U.S. labor market--has the important virtue of being a stratified sample of households scientifically selected to represent the entire civilian noninstitutional population age 16 years and over (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] and U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). A major limitation of CPS data, as noted, is that respondents make their own determination of whether they are a social worker. Nearly 30 percent of people who tell CPS that they are social workers have less than a bachelor of arts (BA) degree, for example, and 10 percent have received no college-level instruction. Given that CPS data include education, however, some idea of the potential limitations of NASW's database as a reflection of the population of social workers as defined by NASW is possible.

Roughly speaking, NASW membership requires at least a BSW degree. But NASW membership accounts for only slightly more than a quarter of the nationally weighted total of people who reported to CPS that they were social workers in 1999 and had at least a BA degree. Even allowing for the likelihood that some CPS respondents who claimed to be social workers in 1999 with BA degrees overestimated their credentials, it is unlikely that almost three of every four people who appear eligible for membership on the basis of CPS data would actually prove ineligible on the basis of the information they would furnish on NASW's membership application form.

Two other databases provide useful information on the social work labor market, although they are less representative than the NASW database. Doelling, Matz, and Kuehne (1999) used author modifications to a survey developed by the Social Work Career Development Group to collect data from MSW programs. The purpose was to establish a profile of the job market and job characteristics of 1998 MSW graduates and to determine the feasibility of collecting such data annually. …

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