Social Worker Unemployment and the U.S. News 100 Best Jobs

A separate post raises concerns about the future of social work, particularly in the clinical area. This post supplements that previous post with a look at current information on employment of social workers. This does not purport to be a scholarly or comprehensive look at the subject. It simply appeared that (as one might anticipate from concluding observations in another post) there was not much bad news to be found in the social work journals, and perhaps some readers would appreciate a few frank remarks. (Note that a different post contains a few tips on social work jobhunting, and another provides a map of the states with the greatest per capita density of social workers.)

Threats to future employability of social workers include the poor quality of much social work education, economic difficulties, the more targeted training offered in competing mental health fields, and – across multiple fields – technological advances (in e.g., neuroscience and robotics) that will probably reduce the need for social work clinicians over the long term. Again, other posts explore those potential causes of unemployability. The focus here is on data and reports regarding actual employment.

Some of the following discussion looks at a U.S. News & World Report article titled “The 100 Best Jobs.” Data for that article came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Unfortunately, for social workers, the BLS data were not entirely clear. As discussed in another post, it was surprisingly difficult even to estimate how many social workers there were at present, with or without licenses. That mattered because employment prospects for licensed social workers (especially at the LCSW level) could be dramatically different from prospects for the unlicensed.

NASW data from 2004 indicated that, at that point, social workers having any form of social work license were distributed as follows, age-wise: Under 34 years old: 17%. Age 34-44: 22%. Age 45-54: 33%. Age 55-64: 24%. Age 65+: 5%. Ten years later, in 2014, one could reasonably expect that most of the older social workers cited in that report had probably retired.

The next question seemed to be, what would happen with the 33% who were in the 45-54 age bracket in 2004? Needless to say, those 2004 data were not ideal for use in 2014. Much could change in ten years. For one thing, the intervening decade would have brought many new licensed social workers, and those people had surely not arrived at equal rates in each age group. Unfortunately, my brief search did not yield updated data about the age distribution of social workers in 2014.

Generally, by now that 45-54 cohort would have aged into the 55-64 cohort. That is, it might seem that 33% of licensed social workers would be on track to retire between 2014 and 2024. It would probably not work out quite that neatly in practice, however. Some, among that 33%, would have died, retired early, or left the profession by now. These early departures would tend to be replaced, often by younger social workers, reducing the size of the cohort. Others in the 55-64 cohort would retire later than expected, either remaining in their existing positions or setting up their own part- or full-time practices, due to changes in views of retirement and degradation of personal retirement accounts in the 2007-2008 stock market crash. In short, it was unlikely that a full 33% of the licensed social workers in 2014 would be retiring by 2024.

In view of those factors as well as the size of the 55-64 age group (i.e., 24%) in 2004, I estimated that only 25% of licensed social workers in 2014 would be retiring by 2024. Thus, on the basis of a separate post estimating 350,000 licensed social workers and 630,000 social workers altogether in 2014, it appeared that retirement would create about 8,750 job openings per year for licensed social workers over the coming decade (i.e., 25% x 350,000 / 10), along with another 7,000 unlicensed openings. It was also possible, of course, that employers would use retirements and other departures as opportunities to reduce or consolidate positions, such that the number of new openings due to retirement might be substantially less than this combined estimate of 15,750 retirement-related openings per year in the U.S. over the next ten years.

Retirement would not be the only source of new social work positions. BLS projected about 11,400 new (i.e., not merely replacement) social work jobs per year, on average. It was not clear how many of these would be for licensed practitioners.

In addition, another post reported substantial rates of burnout and turnover, citing for instance a finding that 40% of LCSWs under age 35 did not intend to be in their present jobs two years later, and 30% intended to go back to school for a degree in some field other than social work. There was also anecdotal evidence supporting strong and continuing levels of anxiety and disaffection regarding careers in social work. Then again, I knew from prior experience that sheer inertia could dissuade people from resolving such anxiety and disaffection by leaving their professions. When there were openings due to burnout and disaffection, it appeared that most would be in relatively undesirable (i.e., powerless and poorly compensated) unlicensed positions. Thus a disproportionate share of job opportunities might arise in positions that would be tough to keep and succeed in.

I could not convert reports of general disaffection into specific projected numbers of job openings. I could, however, try to develop a sense of how many candidates might be vying for the available positions. One thought to keep in mind, in that regard, was that, as a highly female profession, social work might have an above-average tendency to maintain a substantial number of banked workers, temporarily taking time off for family, but in many cases remaining available to work part- or full-time. In other words, a simple comparison of numbers – job openings vs. new graduates – could overstate the opportunities available to jobhunters, because adverse economic conditions might send unpredictable numbers of degreed and in many cases experienced and licensed social workers back into the workforce on short notice.

Even without that banking factor, schools of social work presently appeared to be cranking out more than enough graduates to meet demand. At this writing, the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) membership roster included 722 fully accredited BSW and MSW programs. The National Center for Education Statistics (2012, p. 468) reported that 15,136 bachelor’s and 21,173 master’s degrees in social work were awarded during the 2010-2011 academic year. It appeared, that is, that more than 36,000 new social work graduates were arriving in the labor force each year, and that the average accredited social work program produced about 50 graduates per year.

To review the foregoing estimates, then, I was seeing 36,000 new arrivals; I was estimating that 15,750 of them would fill openings due to retirement; BLS was projecting that another 11,400 would fill new job openings; and that would leave 8,850 new graduates who would hope to replace previous graduates, younger than 55 (i.e., not included in the retirement projection), who had social work jobs but got burned out or otherwise decided to leave the profession.

BLS (2014) warned that its projections would vary by specialty and that outcomes would depend to some extent on the future economy (specifically, on the availability of government funding). I knew that outcomes would also vary according to local job markets, where there might be one, two, three, or more schools of social work serving a single metropolitan area. My experience in Ann Arbor certainly indicated that opportunities for new social workers were very limited there. Similarly, perusal of job ads in a few other large U.S. cities in early 2014 disclosed very small numbers of new jobs for social workers, with an apparent majority requiring LCSW licensing and years of experience. In Canada, according to one report, a single social work job ad had 1,600 views in the first 24 hours it was posted. Various reports suggested that the situation was even worse for those who sought social work jobs with imperfect credentials – for example, having a criminal record or being too old (apparently meaning over 45 or so). As noted in another post, the social work forum seemed to provide a venue for discussions of such matters among a large number of social work posters and viewers, with many expressing serious employment-related concerns.

My brief investigation, for purposes of this post, did turn up a couple of studies on recent developments in social worker unemployment. One, by Carnevale and Ban Cheah (2013), found that undergraduate and graduate unemployment rates among social workers were comparable to those among humanities and liberal arts majors, and were notably higher than rates in the health and education professions that compete for the attention of some social work program applicants. Another study, by Arum et al. (2012, p. 20), found an unemployment rate of 13.5% among education and social work bachelor’s degree holders not enrolled in a full-time graduate program. That was higher than the unemployment rate for any other group studied – about twice the rate for the social sciences and humanities group, and more than four times the rate for the health group.

With that backdrop, let us return at last to that U.S. News article. In addition to listing what it considered the 100 best jobs across all fields, U.S. News also gave its lists for the best jobs within a few specific fields – including health care and social services. How did social work fare among these? The answer emerges by looking at that overall list of 100 best jobs:

The U.S. News List:
100 Best Jobs in 2014

1. Software developer
2. Computer systems analyst
3. Dentist
4. Nurse practitioner
5. Pharmacist
6. Registered nurse
7. Physical therapist
8. Physician
9. Web developer
10. Dental hygienist
11. Information security analyst
12. Database administrator
13. Physician assistant
14. Occupational therapist
15. Market research analyst
16. Phlebotomist
17. Physical therapist assistant
18. Civil engineer
19. Mechanical engineer
20. Veterinarian
21. Occupational therapy assistant
22. Clinical laboratory technician
23. Operations research analyst
24. Information technology manager
25. Dietitian and nutritionist
26. Diagnostic medical sonographer
27. Massage therapist
28. Veterinary technologist
29. Esthetician
30. Computer programmer
31. School psychologist
32. Respiratory therapist
33. Epidemiologist
34. Maintenance and repair worker
35. Speech-language pathologist
36. Substance abuse counselor
37. Construction manager
38. Licensed practical and vocational nurse
39. Accountant
40. High school teacher
41. Financial advisor
42. Business operations manager
43. Bookkeeping, accounting, and audit clerk
44. Marketing manager
45. Medical assistant
46. Financial manager
47. Medical equipment repairer
48. Clinical social worker
49. Nail technician
50. Middle school teacher

I was going to list the full 100, but by this point the situation seemed obvious enough. The first social work-type job on their list of best healthcare jobs was Substance Abuse Counselor, which came in at 36 on the foregoing list, followed by Clinical Social Worker (48th) and Mental Health Counselor (97th) – and even for those positions, a degree in counseling psychology would tend to provide more extensive training. (Note that Marriage and Family Therapist positions, also appearing on the healthcare job list, generally required a master’s degree in that field and were not generally open to social workers.) Other than that, the list of best healthcare jobs was substantially closed to people getting their degrees in social work. Similarly, the only social work job on the U.S. News list of best social services jobs was Child and Family Social Worker (58th on the list of 100 best jobs).

As developed in another post, some of these jobs also appeared in a CNNMoney list of stressful jobs that pay badly. The best of the social work specialties mentioned in the previous paragraph, Substance Abuse Counselor, had a median salary of only $38,500, according to U.S. News (and remember, these were medians across all practitioners, some having many years of experience), and the job was rated as offering below-average upward mobility and above-average stress. Going to the bottom of the items just cited in terms of ranking, the median salary was actually a bit higher for Mental Health Counselors ($40,080), but stress was reportedly high and flexibility was considered low.

To summarize, U.S. News did not accord high standing to any social work careers, and at best was only moderately approving of several. Consistent with previous posts in this blog, this 2014 U.S. News article again presented the reality that a number of careers in health care and other fields appeared to offer significantly better pay and employment conditions. The hardships of social work practice appeared to be accompanied by worrisome if not bleak employment projection data and anecdotal reports. These observations appeared to support my prior remarks regarding a changing concept of employment across many industries and specific difficulties facing clinical MSWs.

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