Method

The purpose of this study was to explore and uncover professional perceptions among UTA second-year or advanced-standing MSW students and investigate the connections of these perceptions to financial worth. Thus, an exploratory and emergent qualitative design seemed the most appropriate. Qualitative data is said to be the most useful in understanding the human experience. Focus groups were chosen as the data collection method because of their unique ability to explore topics about which little is known. Since no other research currently existed on this topic, it was deemed the best way to uncover the facts. 

Using a purposive, nonprobability and convenience sample (n=31), I asked second year and advanced standing MSW students semi-structured questions about their professional perceptions of social work, and their related perceptions of financial worth. I used Glaser and Strauss’ method of constant comparison to analyze the data.

Findings

Thematic groups developed through a dynamic and iterative coding process. That means that the following topics came up so often in participant conversation that I was able to identify relevant and related messaging, look for patterns and outlier opinions, and gather a baseline of important themes that the participants seemed to share when it came to these money and worth. 

Thematic groups

Financial orientation


This theme developed out of comments participants made when addressing who they believed was in control of their financial value- Internal Orientation: the individual dictates their earning power, or External Orientation: someone else does. Internal orienation: refers to a person’s sense that their earning power is based on factors they can control, or have perceived control over. Several peoplesuggested that they were worth a specific dollar amount. Internal financial orientation was also deemed by many to be contingent on expertise,education, and credentials. I see a number. -MSW student participant Many (not all) of the male participants expressed an internally oriented earning power. But there were definitely women on this side of the street too. Some of them came at this idea from a surprising angle. Instead of an expression of power, ownership or expertise, one internally oriented female participant expressed remarks that were subtly guilt-ridden and self-blaming. She voiced that she felt her worth was whatever SHE CHOSE to accept. So say you take a job for... $30,000 a year. At that point, because youneed the job, is that what your financial worth is? That’s what I was thinking... at that point it kinda is, because you accepted a job for that amount of money. -MSW student participant External orientation: students suggested factors outside of themselves determined their earning power. Some common sentiments were: ‘it depends on what I do’ or ‘it depends on who you ask.’ One student asserted thatfinancial worth was contingent on having professional respect. I think at first you have tohave respect from other people, to tell them how much you [are] worth as a person, as asocial worker and how much should be get paid for what you do. -MSW student participant One student suggested that a profession’s financial orientation (or expected
earnings within a profession) actually served to validate the profession itself- that it was a sign of professionalization. Well, I think part of financial worth - for better or worse tends to correlate with the value of –what’s the perceived value of what you’re adding to the situation. And so, if social workers are not perceived to add a lot to the situation, that’s probably matched by low financial rewards... society must first dictate what the social benefit is, or how much social benefit you provide. -MSW student participant




Perceptions of social work pay


Comments in this category had to do with what the participants perceived about existing social work pay (dollar value). Students largley reported that what they deemed to be "typical" rates of pay in the field were unacceptable, and that they and that they were worth more than what they were being told to expect. They talked about social workers who worked two jobs, or that could qualify for the programs they worked for. The most prevalent messages here were the reinforced beliefs that social workers were poor, underpaid, or undervalued. Students reported receiving these messages from others as well as each other. I do personally have a problem when there’s a social worker that works
twelve hours a day and [they] are making just above the poverty line, and
could be a client in the agency that I work for. So, at what level is
your worth valued enough to say... this is not okay?
-MSW student participant Some students even affirmed the theory I mentioned earlier — that the value of the work and focus on successful outcomes can somehow act as a justification for the fact that the money is wholly inadequate. Well okay- we weren’t able to get all of this done but we did get this one
thing done, so- I think that kinda makes up for- well, I’m not making
$60,000- I’m not making $70,000- but I was able to help this lady get off
of drugs. I was able to help this family get housing.
-MSW student participant Yet, no one was prepared to take all of this lying down. In one group, a student made the comment that “social workers just don’t care about the money” and whew! Other particpants strongly disagreed. So, maybe we DO care about the money a little bit! Maybe saying it’s not about the money is an old truth. These students did NOT want to work their career and a second job just to pay their bills; they did NOT want to have just earned a Master’s degree to be told they were barely going to clear $30,000 starting out in some cases. They did NOT want their profession to continue to be associated with low earnings. They were pissed. They also seemed to feel pretty stuck under it.




Professional role clarity


Participants in my study had a lot to say about their perceptions (and others') of social work's professional role clarity- more like the lack of it. The response from ALL participants was decidedly clear: they believed that, generally speaking, people did not really know what social workers did. Yeah, I think that kind of the bottom line of it is that people have no idea what social workers actually do. And that’s why... we have very little value as far as money, because they don’t you know- cause we are just those CPS workers that are just going in and taking those kids away. They have no idea, no clue, all the things that you can do as a social worker and that we do. -MSW student participant Like I mentioned before, things like employment crossover, non social workers in social work roles, and employers willing to hire those non social workers only enhanced the confusion. A number of students agreed that these issues contributed to the continued devaluation and low pay within the profession, because it made it hard to articulate social work’s unique skills and abilities in contrast to other helping professionals doing similar work. Based on some of the comments, it appeared that this confusion about role clarity filtered into the profession itself. This materialized in comments students made devaluing their own skills and abilities and assertions that their job duties were less valuable or meaningful than other professions. Some students reaffirmed the disheartening feeling experienced in having to compete with professionals from other backgrounds for “social work” jobs. Finally, some students appeared to have difficulty articulating what they felt they uniquely brought to the table insofar as skills and expertise.
Multiple students asserted that this societally unclear and negative view of social workers drove them to want to demonstrate that social workers were well-educated, well-trained, and able to speak with authority on current research and evidence-based practices. Others said they felt it necessary to participate in professional advocacy and research and data-tracking. One student related the necessity of role clarity back to financial worth:
I’m a social worker, you know, and this is what I do- and I guess it comes down to that succinct two minute elevator speech to know what a social worker is- what you do and- because I do this, this is what I should be paid. This is what I’m worth. And my worth is equal to a certain amount of pay. -MSW student participant




Internal professional conflict


Internal professional conflict was arguably the most upsetting theme to hear or to write about. Discussion surrounding it was so vast and impactful that I broke it down in order to discuss it.

Part 1: Gender in the workforce

All participants expressed agreement about a couple of things: men make more money than women, even in social work, and that men get promoted to leadership roles in social work faster than women.

Honestly? I’m older, I’m a male, in a female-dominated field-and it won’t be that hard to get a job.”

-MSW student participant

Many female group members expressed that they felt constrained by gender constructs and were aware of the implications of being a woman, negotiating for raises, and then being perceived as “less nice” in the workplace.

I think it goes back historically though, how social work started out as a profession, and then thinking about the mass number of women that are social workers in comparison to men, and the income gap- and so, when you think about- we make less on the dollar than men, we don’t advocate for ourselves... women are not valued, and the majority of the time, it’s women in social work professions doing the work, and it’s like, oh they’re a woman and they care about people, so it’s okay.

-MSW student participant

Though no one said this would necessarily stop them from playing hard ball, there were feelings of trepidation, anxiety, and even guilt expressed at the prospect of doing so. There was also a sense that societal beliefs about gender enhanced the difficulty in articulating worth among helping professionals due to the loose implications of being a “helper” to being a mom, where the work is undervalued, the role is ambiguous, and it is difficult to quantify outcomes and costs.

On that same note, participants noted that some single-female-heads-of-household may find themselves forced to settle for low pay because they have to support their families. Some of them had even experienced this firsthand.

2. Internal devaluation

Social workers reported experiences that made them feel devalued as professionals; some students even seemed to participate in spreading those messages to each other.

They talked about devaluation based on education level or practice area, a reiteration of devaluing messages about low earning power, and even doubt and disappointment in their training and education. There were complaints about a lack of rigor, loosened admission requirements, struggles with getting adequate internship training, and discouraging messages from professors. These messages were generally where students had been told to stick to direct practice over community or administrative practice so they could “get a job,” as well as messages from professors who were not afraid to shoot straight about the bleak financial future ahead of their students). While no one reported their professors telling them they would never make any money, there was a sense that they were being prepared for this inevitable outcome.

One student provided this hypothetical remark based on what she felt someone might say of social workers, either internally or externally.

...well we can keep devaluing these people because you know their program- it’s crap... it’s
not as strenuous as going to medical school, or a nurse or whatever- so we can just pay them $30,000 a year [and] that’s fine.

-MSW student participant

The point here is that some of the partcipants believed that this was what others believed of them. It didn't matter whether it was true or not- these perceptions were coming with them as they prepared to finsh their advanced degrees and enter (or continue in) the workforce.

This theme also appeared to involve a lot of guilt and blame. Students expressed
discomfort in talking about their financial worth, even going so far as to describe it as an
unacceptable topic for social workers to discuss.

...it almost makes me feel guilty... I wanna be paid better?... at least I have a roof over my head, you know? At least I can feed myself.

-MSW student participant

Finally, students blamed themselves for their lack of self advocacy and low level of participation in professional groups. They made comments that they or others “should” be doing something they were not (like policy work, professional advocacy, research anddata-tracking). One group member asked, “If you can advocate foryour client, why can’t you advocate for yourself?” This message placed blame on the other group members for not participating in professional advocacy, though there was a resounding opinion that no one else was doing it either.

They went on to note that social work professional groups (NASW, CSWE) and their SSW seemed unsupportive and unhelpful. A few noted that they did not feel professional advocacy was active enough, and that lowered education standards and admission requirements only served to further de-professionalize social work. They also mentioned the lack of professional preparedness they experienced. Students commented that they felt under-prepared through their internships and coursework and that they didn't receive training on how to advocate professionally or for themselves. Many of the direct practice students said they would have like course options in topics like the present study, business and professional marketing strategy, and other soft skills.




Pride in the work


Despite some of these painful messages, social work student participants were incredibly proud of the amazing and valuable work they were doing or preparing to do. They seemed to have a unique gift to make the best out of this difficult situation and to reframe it to find unordinary and meaningful ways to measure success. Participants spoke with pride about social work’s unique contribution to the greater good, as advocates of social justice and the voice of the voiceless. They commented that no one could do it better.

...if all social workers [decided], 'I'm not doing this for a day,' the world would be over.

-MSW student participant

The students in my study also told me that if anything was going to change in regard to social work’s perceptions of professional and financial worth, it was going to have to be an inside job.




Perceived financial value


The responses here were based largely on demographic data captured at each focus group and then compared against existing literature. They describe the tangible way that social work students saw their dollar value in conjunction to their societal benefit. The majority of participants’ starting salary expectations were consistent with the data presented in the literature. NASW (2010) reported that MSWs with less than five years’ experience could expect to make about $43,000 annually. Fifty-five percent (n=17) students posited they would start their careers making between $40,000 and $59,000, which encompasses this average as well as the overall average salary for respondents listed in same report ($55,000). A quarter of participants (n=7) believed they would begin their post-graduate school careers making less than $40,000. This was pretty disheartening as these earnings were more indicative of bachelor or entry level salaries. 65% of student participants (n=20) believed their maximum salary earnings would range between $60,000 and $79,000. NASW (2010) illustrated that earnings like these were only representative of about 40% of social workers, so unfortunately, participant response rates were a little high.
Despite the fact that student projections may be more or less in line with available averages, students did not seem to have a high perception of their financial earning power, in general. Though the survey provided ranges as high as “$100,000-above,” no student chose this as a possibility for their maximum possible career earnings, and only four students asserted their maximum salary capacity would reach $80,000 or above. All student participants appeared to have relatively low expectations of their lifetime earning power.
As mentioned, seventeen students expected salary increases of $20,000 to $30,000 over the life of their social work careers. Compared again to the only available data on the subject, this seemed to be accurate. There was an approximately $20,000 salary increase in NASW (2010) response data for social workers with less than five years of experience, and those with more than twenty years. However, salary increase over career lifetime was not expressly studied in the report, and no other available literature could be found on the topic. To reiterate, respondents to the NASW (2010) report with less than five years’ field experience stated they earned about $43,000 a year, while respondents with twenty years or more experience averaged $60,000 annually. From one number to the other, this represents annually compounded growth of about 1.7%. Of course, this percentage only truly shows that there appears to be a slow and low capacity for income growth over the years. The report did not explicitly measure inflation or yearly cost of living adjustments, so it is impossible to speculate about the salary progression of those practitioners with twenty plus years of work experience.





Implications for social work

education policy

CSWE should take note of the perceptions outlined within and discover whether or not there is truth to the student remarks about the lack of rigor and loosened standards in the education system. Students in all three focus groups repeatedly expressed a desire to have their training and education taken more seriously by their School of Social Work and CSWE. This perceived lessening of educational standards experienced by some students reinforces internal professional devaluation and contributes to an externally negative public perception. It would also be wise to survey and compile data from students regarding messages they’ve received from professors and SSW staff regarding the money/ worth topics.

It is of utmost necessity to actively include students in the change process. Additionally,this author recommends CSWE and SSWs consider the implications that reductions in educational standards have on the public’s perception of social work as well as on the internal conflict and devaluation present within the discipline itself. Like one student was quoted earlier, if social workers are not perceived to place a high value on their education and training, it is easy to see why others may not either.

Some students asserted that there was a lack of crossover training for micro practice social workers in areas of professional advocacy and activism. Though not explicitly stated, comments made by some students suggested that micro practice students felt under-prepared to participate in the professional advocacy of social work. All students expressed a desire to be involved in advocacy but felt unsure of how to actually do so. CSWE should consider implementing new EPAS that include the topics of social work professional advocacy, self-care, marketing and promotion as well as negotiation and other job preparedness strategies as part of the social work curricula.

CSWE, NASW, and SSWs begin to promote the discussion of financial worth to students from the beginning of their social work education. Additionally, students should be introduced to the concept of financial orientation so that they can consider where their beliefs about earning power come from and who they believe is in control of them.

Students requested that their professors provide them with more balanced and proactive messages related to social work’s professional and financial worth. The researcher recommends professors help students identify the socio-cultural factors that impact social work’s place in society as well as equip them with tools to affect change. It is of note that students in each group shared experiences of negative messages received from professors without prompting. Several students detailed accounts where their professors intimated that students would not make much money and also discouraged them from research, policy, and community and administrative practice. Students seemed quick to share their frustrations and how these devaluing messages factored into a discussion about worth and perception.

Future research

First and foremost: do more research! Encourage, conduct and expand research in this topic area- this is only the beginning of this discussion. Join the NASW and support its lobbying and policy efforts. Their work will be more effective the more we get involved.

 

Social work research is vital, but is not typically pushed or promoted within SSW’s. For example, I was one of a very small number of students in my program who pursued the thesis option. While social work is largely an applied degree, we can’t do much without data to back up what we’re doing. And relying on evidence-based research from other fields (i.e. psychology or similar clinical research) doesn’t fit the bill. Thus, social workers and faculty need to promote the importance of growing the literature base in our field.

 

I suggest the following future research goals for this topic:

 

  • An expansion of the project to include more SSWs and more participants.

  • Research that includes social workers at varying stages in their career and in all practice areas, and from varying cultural, racial and geographical perspectives.

  • Continued research is absolutely necessary in the areas of professional perception and social work professional self image. There are inherent self-worth implications in the fact that such a small body of research exists.

  • We also need to continue compiling and analyzing social work financial earning data, and add to it a discussion about inflation and cost of living increases.

And once we have a deeper sense for what professional and financial perceptions look like across the field, future research should be expanded to shared beliefs AND solutions held among other helping professionals who operate under similar constructs, like teachers, counselors and nurses.

It would also be wise for social workers to research topics such as successful professional rebranding campaigns. To name a few, nursing, engineering and computer programming. This may provide additional guidance as we move toward growing and promoting a healthy professional self-image and a positive financial worth.

 

Participants of all career stages should be included in crafting the messaging and story line for social work’s “rebranding.” We need to ask important questions about what matters and what gets their attention. This process is only effective if it’s collective. This is the value of communications in the social work world- we are the managers of our own brand! WE must unapologetically define our role in the world and then help ALL social workers (starting with students) learn how to articulate that.

 

Like I mentioned before, they can follow the steps outlined above and start participating in recreating social work’s professional story. Change the message- change the story! Remember that the stories we tell ourselves become our truths, so let’s choose them wisely.

 

As change agents, we owe it to each other to continue having this conversation, and to think more critically about the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves. We are worth the conversation – we are SOCIALWORTHIT!

SOCIALWORTHIT

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