Four intense years are spent learning social work theories and attending practicums to put theories learned into practice. Our values are challenged, we get a feel of our area of interest, and we develop our professional identities by being thrown into the deep end of field practicums. We receive our own clients, we mingle with existing professionals, and we are responsible for our load. In class, we are placed in role plays that depict social work dilemmas and our conflict skills are tested.
Our assignments involve creating realistic workshops for client groups and given to agencies to use. Then, we write our resumes and locate our professional selves in preparation for employment. Last, we present a conference for professionals in all fields sharing our insights, passion and skills, and we write a final academic paper pinpointing an area of interest and our ideas for positive change.
But at what point do we become social workers? At what point do we suddenly go from student to professional? Our final placement leads us to feel we are inches away from being true professionals – we have our own clients, we participate in staff meetings and discussions, we write client notes and case manage, we attend regular educational workshops.
When we have our final class, we are congratulated as social workers; our photograph is taken and hung in the University humanities foyer. Then, we are told see you ‘in the field’. We relax for a few weeks…we feel OK to kick back from job searching instantly as we are burned out from the crazy hours and stress spent on our conference paper. Also, it is near the end of the year, and we are told jobs will roll out at the beginning of next year.
Next year comes. We start searching for jobs. But we find a lot of the criteria requires two years POST experience…despite our placements, our four years of study…we are suddenly not qualified enough. Some of us have had jobs in the field but not for two years. Does this mean we are not fully-equipped social workers? Are we now simply ‘newbies’ who still do not know enough to get a real job?
How did we go from being prepped for employment, bursting to the brim with anticipation to suddenly not being ready? Some job applications do not return our expressions of interest, yet we hear a massive need for social workers. We suddenly feel inept despite being told we are professionals, and we suddenly feel there are no jobs for us despite being primed for employment.
We start to fear losing our skills and becoming rusty…we start to doubt our ability. We go from calling ourselves social workers to saying we have no experience because the jobs we search for require this. What do we do? Volunteer? But what about those of us who need to earn a living? Must we begin again on at the bottom of the rung when we have done the hard yards of study and placements?
Despite gaining a degree, we feel as though we are back in Kindergarten. So what are we to do? Ride it out? Keep applying? Go for other jobs that do not spell ‘social work’ and get our foot in the door that way? Endlessly advertise ourselves in the hope we will be in the right place at the right time? How do you manage the huge ball of anticipation you’ve been building for four years to sink your teeth into employment to have to sit and wait…wait…wait.
Again, at what point do we graduates become recognised as social work professionals?