SOCIAL SERVICE WORKERS: AN OCCUPATIONAL OVERVIEW

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1 Fact Sheet 2012 SOCIAL SERVICE WORKERS: AN OCCUPATIONAL OVERVIEW Social service workers serve on the front lines in our communities, providing public services and much needed social assistance. They work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, schools, homes, community centers, hospitals, and private practice. This fact sheet will outline: general employment facts about social service workers, including projected occupational growth, typical education requirements, and salaries; the benefits of a union for social service workers, the presence of women and minorities, and occupational challenges. Basic Employment Data In 2011, there were 1,890,400 community and social service workers in the U.S. Social service is a broad occupational category, which includes health educators, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, rehabilitation counselors, school and career counselors, social and human service assistants, social workers, and substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. 1 Counseling is an essential social service for many individuals and families. Counselors work in schools, community centers, government agencies, and private practices, among other settings. In 2011, there were 244,560 educational, vocational, and school counselors; 110,690 rehabilitation counselors; 114,180 mental health counselors; and 76,600 substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. 2 Social workers are found in private practice, behavioral health clinics, hospitals, social service agencies, and nursing homes. In 2011, there were 276,510 child, family, and school social workers; 133,890 health care social workers, and 115,390 mental health and substance abuse social workers. 3 Social service workers also work in administrative and program assistance, offender rehabilitation, and personal and family therapy. In 2011, there were 359,860 social and human service assistants; 88,520 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists; and 33,990 marriage and family therapists. 4 From 2010 to 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in community and social service occupations will grow by 24 percent, representing roughly 582,300 jobs. They project that overall employment will increase by 14 percent during that time. 5 Between 2010 and 2020, employment in mental health counseling and health care social work is expected to increase by 37 percent and 34 percent, respectively more than double the expected rate of national job growth. 6 The overall employment growth for social workers is expected to be 25 percent, or 161,200 jobs, between 2010 and The overall growth rate for educational, guidance, school, and

2 vocational counselors is predicted to be 19 percent, or 53,400 jobs. For social and human service assistants, job growth is expected to be 28 percent, or 106,000 jobs. 7 Education and Salaries Social service workers are generally well educated, but modestly compensated professionals. In most states, social service workers, like counselors, social workers, and therapists, must earn additional licenses through examinations and field experience. Bachelor s degrees awarded in public administration and social services numbered 25,414 in the 2009 to 2010 school year, an increase of 5,229 from the 1999 to 2000 school year. Master s and doctoral degrees awarded in public administration and social services numbered 36,567 for the same year, an increase of over 10,000 from 1999 to Social workers are highly trained and experienced professionals. Only those who have earned Bachelor s, Master s, or doctoral degrees in social work, and completed a minimum number of hours in supervised fieldwork, are considered professional social workers. A Master s degree is required to provide therapy or conduct more advanced clinical work, and a doctorate in social work is useful for research and teaching positions. 9 All but one state requires counselors to be licensed, a process that typically requires a Master s degree in counseling, extensive practical training and experience, passage of a licensing exam, and continuing education. 10 Social and human service assistants are not normally required to hold college degrees, although employers are increasingly seeking individuals with advanced education or relevant work experience. 11 Salaries for social service workers tend to be significantly below those of similarly educated professionals. For instance, in 2011 the median annual salary for registered nurses was $65,950, and the median annual salary for physician assistants was $88, In 2011, professionals in community and social service occupations earned a median income of $39, For counselors, median earnings ranged from $33,740 for rehabilitation counselors to $54,130 for educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors. The top-paying employers of counselors were business, professional, labor, political, and similar organizations, the federal government, and elementary and secondary schools. 14 In 2011, the median annual earnings for social workers ranged from $42,650 for mental health and substance abuse social workers to $54,220 for social workers in federal, state, and local government, advocacy organizations, and community groups. Government, school, and hospital positions are typically the best-paying jobs for all types of social workers, while individual and family services are the lowest-paying. 15 Social and human service assistants had a median annual salary in 2011 of $28,740. Government positions typically had the highest salaries, with a median salary of $43,970 for federal government employees, while those working in residential mental health and substance abuse facilities received the lowest median annual salaries, averaging $25, DPE Fact Sheet Social Service Workers: An Occupational Overview Page 2 of 6

3 Union Benefits A significant proportion of social service workers are union members. In 2011, 19.7 percent of social workers, 21.7 percent of counselors, and 24.2 percent of other community and social service specialists were union members. 17 In 2011, social workers represented by unions earned 21.7 percent more than those without union representation. For counselors, this earnings differential was as high as 59.8 percent. The 2011 median weekly earnings of other community and social service specialists averaged a whopping 71.5 percent higher for those represented by a union than for those who were not. 18 Besides negotiating higher wages, unions are important in acting on social service workers behalf in cases where understaffing or insufficient safety and security precautions lead to an unsafe work environment. Unions, like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), work nationally on social workers behalf. AFT advocates strengthening occupational safety and health protections to ensure social workers and other employees have safe working environments. For social workers in the public sector, AFT works to reverse privatizing and contracting out public services, and to increase federal funding for public services. 19 At the state level, unions fight abusive and anti-worker legislation. From Wisconsin to Ohio to Florida, unions have been fighting budget cuts, privatization schemes, and anti-collective bargaining measures. Nationally, unions work to preserve important public programs. AFT, the AFL-CIO, and many other unions support the American Jobs Act of 2011 (S. 1660), a $447 billion funding bill proposed by President Obama that would repair schools, roads, bridges, and other public works, as well as preserve the jobs of over 300,000 public workers. 20 Women, Minorities, and Social Service Women dominate the field of social services, constituting 81.6 percent of social workers, 69.9 percent of counselors, and 82.4 percent of social and human service assistants. 21 Women account for nearly 47 percent of the overall labor force. 22 Despite their disproportionate representation in community and social service occupations, women still earn 17.3 percent less in median weekly earnings than men. The wage gap varies across social service occupations. In 2011 male counselors median weekly earnings were 8.1 percent more than female counselors, and male social workers earned 13 percent more than female social workers. 23 The social service workforce is diverse. In 2011, 18.7 percent of counselors, 22.8 percent of social workers, and 18 percent of social and human service assistants were Black or African- American. The same year, 11.2 percent of counselors, 11.2 percent of social workers, and 13.5 percent of social and human service assistants were Hispanic. 24 In comparison, Black professionals represent 9.1 percent of the professional workforce and Hispanic professionals only 7.4 percent. Hispanic workers were 15 percent of the labor force in 2011and Black workers comprised 10.8 percent of the labor force. 25 DPE Fact Sheet Social Service Workers: An Occupational Overview Page 3 of 6

4 Challenges for Professionals in the Social Service Occupations Social service workers face numerous challenges related to their chosen occupations. High student loan debt coupled with the relatively low salaries of social service workers creates a long-term burden on many professionals. Additionally, social service workers frequently perform their tasks in high-stress environments and often struggle with workplace safety issues. The recent recession has made working conditions for social service workers more precarious, as state and local government budget cuts threaten job security. Social workers are burdened with education debt due to the costs of their higher education and low salaries. Bachelor s level social workers have an average student loan debt of $18,609; Master s level social workers have an average loan debt of $26,777, and doctoral level social workers have an average loan debt of $32, Social services occupations can be emotionally draining. The high-pressure nature of the work, relatively low wages, and understaffing can lead to high turnover. 27 Because social service workers often work with mentally and emotionally unstable people, they risk higher incidents of workplace violence. Dwindling services and reduced benefits, and working conditions such as understaffing, working alone, and working late hours, exacerbate this risk. 28 Forty-four percent of social workers reported facing personal safety issues on the job; yet of those, only 70 percent reported that these safety issues were adequately addressed by their employer. 29 The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) found that the most common workrelated stressors for social workers were: inadequate time to complete their jobs (31 percent); heavy workloads (25 percent); salary not comparable to peers in other jobs (19 percent); overall inadequate compensation (16 percent); and challenging clients (16 percent). 30 Nearly five percent of licensed social workers in the NASW survey indicated that they planned to leave social work but continue to work. These social workers were disproportionally younger professionals with Bachelor s degrees in their first four years of practice. They cited personal safety issues, low pay, understaffing, and lack of support at their workplace as challenges to doing their job properly. 31 Since the 2008 recession, state governments have suffered through a persistent economic downturn coupled with shrinking tax revenues. Since the official end of the recession in summer 2009, 600,000 state and local jobs have been eliminated. Many of the state and local cuts have targeted social service agencies and community programs. 32 For fiscal year 2013 (beginning on July 1, 2012), 30 states have projected shortfalls totaling $54 billion. As of the fourth quarter of 2011, state revenues remained seven percent below pre-recession levels, and are not growing fast enough to recover fully in the near future. 33 Budget cuts enacted in at least 46 states and the District of Columbia since 2008 have occurred in all major areas of state services, including health care (31 states), services to the elderly and disabled (29 states and D.C.), K-12 education (34 states and the D.C.), higher education (43 states), and other areas. At the same time, the need for these services did not decline and, in fact, rose as the number of families facing economic difficulties increased. 34 DPE Fact Sheet Social Service Workers: An Occupational Overview Page 4 of 6

5 1 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Community and Social Service Occupations, May Social Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, ed. Social-Service/Social-workers.htm#tab-6; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Community and Social Service Occupations, May U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Community and Social Service Occupations, May Ibid. 5 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, ed, Overview of the Projections, 6 Social Workers ; Mental Health Counselors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, ed. 7 Social Workers ; Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors ; Social and Human Service Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, ed. 8 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Tables A38-1 and A-39-1, Social Work Profession, Factsheet, NASW, Ibid. 11 Social and Human Service Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, ed U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Registered Nurses, May 2011; Occupational Employment and Wages: Physician Assistants, May U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Community and Social Service Occupations, May U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States, March U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages: Social and Human Service Assistants, May Barry T. Birch and David A. Macpherson, Union Membership and Earnings: Compilations from the Current Population Survey, 2012 ed., (Arlington, VA: Bloomberg BNA, 2012), table 8a. 18 Ibid. 19 AFT Public Employees, American Federation of Teachers, President Obama s American Jobs Act: Putting Jobs Front and Center, AFSCME, October U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Annual Average 2011, Table Ibid. 23 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Annual Average 2011, Table Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Public Comments of the National Association of Social Workers to the Department of Education, NASW, November 9, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Edition, April Perette Arrington, Stress at work: How do social workers cope? NASW Membership Workforce Study, Tracy Whitaker, Toby Weismiller, and Elizabeth Clark, Assuring the Sufficiency of a Frontline Workforce: A DPE Fact Sheet Social Service Workers: An Occupational Overview Page 5 of 6

6 National Study of Licensed Social Workers, National Association of Social Workers, March Perette Arrington, Stress at work: How do social workers cope? NASW Membership Workforce Study, Tracy Whitaker, Toby Weismiller, and Elizabeth Clark, Assuring the Sufficiency of a Frontline Workforce: A National Study of Licensed Social Workers, National Association of Social Workers, March President Obama s American Jobs Act: Putting Jobs Front and Center, AFSCME, October Elizabeth McNichol, Phil Oliff and Nicholas Johnson, States Continue to Feel Recession s Impact, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 24, Nicholas Johnson, Phil Oliff, and Erica Williams, At Least 46 States Have Imposed Cuts That Hurt Vulnerable Residents and the Economy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 9, The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) comprises 21 AFL-CIO unions representing over four million people working in professional and technical occupations. DPE-affiliated unions represent: teachers, college professors, and school administrators; library workers; nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals; engineers, scientists, and IT workers; journalists and writers, broadcast technicians and communications specialists; performing and visual artists; professional athletes; professional firefighters; psychologists, social workers, and many others. DPE was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 1977 in recognition of the rapidly growing professional and technical occupations. DPE Research Intern Charlie Fanning contributed to the update of this fact sheet. Source: DPE Research Department th Street, N.W., 7 th Floor Washington, DC Contact: Jennifer Dorning June 2012 (202) extension 114 DPE Fact Sheet Social Service Workers: An Occupational Overview Page 6 of 6

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