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Thinking Outside the Agency: The Emerging Generality of Social Work Skill Sets

Social workers are spreading their wings and going places they have not gone before. Graduates typically have taken jobs in “traditional” social agencies—and they are still doing so. However, they increasingly are doing many other things, and the aim in this issue of Ongoing is to explore and explain that phenomenon.

Social work as an occupation and profession began as a result of the English Poor Law Reform of 1834. The cessation of “outdoor relief” (aid to the “shameless poor in their own homes”) by the English government created a need for agencies to help those who were in need but not yet in “houses of correction” or “workhouses.” The Charity Organization Society was born, arriving in the United States in Buffalo in 1877 (followed by Philadelphia in 1878). Since then, private agencies have been a core source of employment for social work professionals, focusing, as they did and do, on disadvantaged populations. While there had always been some local governmental relief, it was not until the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 that the federal government became involved in any significant way. Thus social work came to be identified with social work agencies.

When professional social work training came on the scene (beginning at the University of Chicago at the turn of the century), the connection between training and social work “work” became tight. Social work trainees were trained at social work agencies, where they later worked and became trainers themselves.

The University of Michigan School of Social Work, though, has been traditionally nontraditional in this regard. While retaining an emphasis on social work agencies (especially in the public sector), the School has supported innovative employment settings in many different areas. Of course, the Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science, begun in 1957, was a major innovation in social work education, with many graduates becoming professors, deans, and leading researchers and writers. This penchant for cooperation and collaboration has now extended to the MSW program, where we have combined programs with the schools of business, information, law, public health, public policy, and urban planning.  Increasingly today, students are combining social work degrees with other degrees to give them new professional opportunities.

In the macro areas of community organization, evaluation, management, and policy, the School innovated in scale. Other schools had tiny programs in these areas with few students. We developed a major program with many students, and it has remained a staple of our curriculum over the years.

These changes, and others, have reflected and supported an even greater change in the social work mind-set: recognition that social work skills—thinking like a social worker—are highly general skills useful in multiple settings that are nowhere near the ones traditionally considered “social work.” It has long been accepted that “thinking like a lawyer” has value beyond purely legal employment. It is now clear that “thinking like a social worker” has a similar value.

What is thinking like a social worker? There will be many answers to this question, I am sure. But I asked a good number of people that question, and a distillation of their responses follows.

Thinking like a social worker involves, first, an assessment of the impact on people of anything that is done or contemplated. The human impact is central, but the lens is more focused than “people in general.” There is special interest in the human impact on those most vulnerable in the situation at hand—children, the elderly, the poor, or any disadvantaged group.

Second, there is an interest in various kinds of justice, which involves both equality (of opportunity and access) and equity (proportionality in return).

Third, social workers are taught to look at systems and the various factors in systems that contribute to the situation they see before them, whether that is a client system, a community system, or an organizational system. Social work stresses both precipitation and predisposing causality (temporally immediate and temporally distant causality), as well as causal multiplicity (more than one predisposing or precipitating element).

Fourth, social workers are taught emotional intelligence.1 This involves five skill areas: self-awareness, management of one’s own feelings and those of others, motivation (maintaining zeal and enthusiasm in the face of setbacks), empathy, and social skills (the ability to move appropriately in a wide range of groups). These are skills all social workers acquire, not just clinical social workers. The clinical skill set—like the managerial, community organization, evaluation, and policy skill sets—builds upon these basic universals.

It has long been accepted that "thinking like a lawyer" has value beyond purely legal employment. It is now clear that "thinking like a social worker" has a similar value.

Social workers, as well as a wide range of employers, are recognizing more broadly than ever that thinking like a social worker can be extremely useful wherever “people skills” are needed. Social workers are applying such skills in the areas of financial planning, customer relations, general management, or settings that involve “getting work done through others.” Social work is happening wherever social work graduates are employed because they have gained the skills of thinking like a social worker.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal (Career Journal, 7/11/06) identified social work as one of the five best careers. These careers have the following properties: “good intellectual stimulation, strong job security, high level of control and freedom in what to do, and extensive direct contact with customers/clients.” These features are valuable not only in traditional social work jobs, but in innovative ones as well.

Social workers of today are seeing that there are many ways in which civic contributions can be made. Working in a social service agency is certainly one of them, but working in the business world and volunteering at a social agency is another. Meeting common human needs is the province not just of the traditional, but of the innovative workplace as well. Social workers are stepping up to that plate.

—John Tropman, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Work. 

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