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What’s Ahead for Social Work This Coming Year? Opinion Piece by Dr. Nancy Smyth – A #SWSCmedia debate

Prof. Nancy Smyth

Prof. Nancy Smyth

Welcoming in a new year always brings a chance to consider what might be up ahead. Given who I am, many (but not all) of my predictions relate to social work and technology. This is not to suggest that these are the only notable trends for this year, only that this is what I’m noticing and thinking about.

Predictions for what 2013 will bring the social work profession:

1. More and more social workers exploring how to use the Internet as a way to connect, and more and more non-profits figuring out they need to learn how to leverage the Internet. This trend began accelerating last year with the advent of more social work chats on Twitter (in part, because of the great work from @SWSCMedia). I think we’ll continue seeing more colleagues using Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn professionally this year.  And with the start of Google+ Communities I think we’ll see more social workers using them to connect. We already have one thriving community there, started by Jonathan Singer (of the Social Work Podcast fame), called Social Work and Technology. Nonprofits who are looking for some guidance in this world would do well to look at the work of Beth Kanter , including her two books on the topic: The Networked NonProfit, and Measuring the Networked NonProfit, both of which are available on Amazon.

2. A continuation of the trend of reduced funding for nonprofits, governmental, and other social care agencies (because of economic downturns, see State Mental Health Cuts: The Continuing Crisis), as well as the restructuring of systems of care based on significant policy shifts (e.g., see #6 below). Both of these forces will result in more reorganizations, downsizings, mergers and closures. While it may be turning around in some places (depending on which indicators one follows), from my vantage point it looks like it will be a while for any recovery to fully hit the social sector. This doesn’t mean there won’t be jobs, only that there will be senior people who find themselves unexpectedly out on the job market and that the job-seeking environment will be a competitive one. Most new social workers I know are finding jobs within about 3-4 months of seeking employment.

3. Continued emphasis on increased accountability for social work, social care and human services agencies. The world at large has been placing more and more attention on the use of data–e.g., “big data” and “business intelligence“–to understand the world and to guide how we make decisions. I think we will see more non-profits begin to jump in and show that they understand the importance of this trend, both to show their impact and use data-based decision-making to guide their work.

4. Reduced governmental funding, at least in the Western world, for social research. This is simply a function of the challenging economic environment and the lower priority that most governments place on this as a priority when funds get tight.

5. Partly as a result of #2 and #4, more social workers and social work researchers will begin exploring the use of crowd-funding projects through internet-based platforms. Mashable did a review of some of these (see 11 Innovative Crowdfunding Platforms for Social Good) a couple years ago and it remains a good list. I have recently seen two researchers raising money for pilot research projects this way, one of whom had been a social media holdout– I think you’ll see more social workers/social scientists jumping on board in the next year.

6. Increasing integration of health and mental health care in North America and the UK (I can’t really speak to the rest of the world). This will increase the demand for social work & related professions taking on roles of care coordination (see these posts on SWSCMedia for more on this)

7. Increased emphasis on interprofessional education, that is, on developing competencies to work effectively with a wide range of health professionals (see #7). This movement has been underway within the health care arena for a while (see Interprofessional Education for an overview and some links) and the baton was recently taken up by the national leadership in social work education in the United States, including the Council on Social Work Education, in calling for the federal government to include social work in these initiatives (see Setting Priorities, Serving the Nation: A Shared Agenda for Social Work Education).

8. Continued growth in mobile applications (“apps”) that could be used by social workers and related professionals. Apps are taking off in the culture at large, and 2012 saw the beginning of more apps available for social workers. I think that some of this interest is because social workers are getting smart phones, especially since it’s become harder and harder to buy a non-smart phone in wireless stores (in the United States at least). For more on this trend, see my blog post Mobile Apps and the Savvy Social Worker ) and the blog Mobile Social Work, curated by Lutz Siemer.

9. More interest by early adopter social workers in using games to accomplish our work (intervention, education). This is extension of the larger cultural trend toward gameification that has been underway (see Gartner’s Gamification 2020: What Is the Future of Gamification?. Those who are interested in this trend should also take a look at the work of Mike Langlois, LCSW, his recent book, Reset (available on Amazon ebooks), which focuses on video games and psychotherapy, and his recent list of social justice games (Angry Birds, Advent, and the 12 Links of Christmas).

10. Increased discussion, among social workers, of the social justice implications of people who don’t have Internet access. As society moves more and more key information online, people who don’t have ready access to the Internet will be at a greater and greater disadvantage. Perhaps more importantly, the Internet tools that enable the creation of content will not be available to whole segments of society. I would like to share some credit for this idea with Mozart Guerrier for the recent Facebook conversation we had about Internet access as a human right as we were discussing the United Nations declaring Internet Access a Human Right.

Wishes for Our Profession

The New Year is a great time for hope too. Here’s what I wish the future would bring:

1. More loan forgiveness money available for social workers who have accrued loans while acquiring their education, especially given rising costs for higher education and low social work salaries. While there are some loan forgiveness programs available in the United States, the funds are exhausted quickly. Based on my conversations with social workers from around the globe, such programs are needed worldwide.

2. Increased awareness, by policymakers, of the value of what social work and social work research brings to the problems society is confronting. This would be evidenced by seeing the profession listed in legislation and policy documents wherever relevant, and having our major professional bodies invited to weigh in on significant social problems whenever major task forces, commissions, or policy boards are assembled.

3. Working through our professional fears about technology. Technology is neither good nor bad, it depends on how it’s utilized. I would love to see our whole profession let go of the inherent distrust that many of our colleagues harbor about technology and related change (see blog posts on technology fears and on cultural incompetence for some rants on this topic). We are a profession that is supposed to know something about change, therefore, we should know how to use all the existing tools to accomplish what we do, especially those that help to connect people across distances to collaborate and work together (e.g., social media).

4. Social work/social care salaries set at levels suggesting that society values what we do as much as it values making money. In my mind our salaries should at least be comparable with what people, with comparable education, earn in the business sector.

5. Self-care for ourselves and effort to help impaired social workers. I am becoming increasingly concerned about our lack of attention to this topic. In a recent article, Trauma-Informed Practice [Smyth, N.J. & Greyber, L.A., forthcoming in Thyer,B.A., Dulmus,C.M., & Sowers, K.M. (Eds), Developing Evidence-Based Generalist Practice Skills. New York: Wiley Press] we discussed that, “trauma-informed practice also requires that we examine how working with traumatized clients can affect our own vulnerability to experiencing secondary traumatic stress (STS), that is the stress-related symptoms that develop as a result of close contact with people who have experienced significant trauma. While much of the content on STS is anecdotal, some research is beginning to emerge that identifies it is a significant problem that deserves attention. For example, one study found that half [my emphasis, now] the social workers surveyed reported significant levels of STS (Bride, 2007).” It should be noted that the Bride study surveyed all social workers and child welfare workers across a state. I just don’t hear the level of discussion about impaired social workers, in professional and academic circles, that a finding like this would suggest is needed. It would be wonderful if 2013 were the year to bring this topic into the open.

Dr. Nancy Smyth (@njsmyth) is Professor and Dean of School of Social Work at University at Buffalo and Affiliated Research Scientist at Research Institute on Addictions. She is also a member of @SWSCmedia Expert Panel.

We look forward to your views, experiences, and insights as we explore ‘What is in store for Social Work, Social Care and Health?’ in @SWSCmedia Twitter debate on 8 January at 8:00 PM GMT / 3:00 PM EST.



2 thoughts on “What’s Ahead for Social Work This Coming Year? Opinion Piece by Dr. Nancy Smyth – A #SWSCmedia debate

  1. My favorite wish is the one for self-care. While I’m deeply disturbed by the amount of helpers who are quietly (or not so quietly) suffering, I’m also curious to know what happens when the majority of social workers can obtain and maintain the skills necessary to care for themselves! Is there a group organizing around this work, Nancy?

    Posted by mgspeaks | January 9, 2013, 2:16 pm


  1. Pingback: What’s Ahead for Social Work This Coming Year? « Virtual Connections - January 11, 2013

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