Using O*NET Labor Force Data to Define the Social Work Profession

Summary

This post begins with a brief review of various ways of defining social work. The discussion then turns to the use of O*NET, an online interface presenting data from the U.S. Department of Labor, to identify characteristics of practicing social workers.

Among the various O*NET criteria, many are informative in various ways. Some are useful for highlighting key differences among relatively dissimilar occupations (e.g., mathematics vs. social work). To a lesser degree, some such criteria can also point toward differences among relatively similar occupations (e.g., mental health services provided by people with master’s degrees in counseling psychology vs. social work). The O*NET criteria do not appear very useful for drawing sharp distinctions among subsets within a profession (e.g., mental health social work vs. school social work), although they can add to a reader’s general-purpose sense of such distinctions. It goes without saying that browsing among such criteria could be very helpful to some people, as they choose among various possible future occupations for themselves.

The O*NET criteria I found most useful, in this study, tended to be relatively concise in the choices offered. In particular, O*NET’s Interests and Work Values comparisons were informative and easy to use. A comparison of Tasks was helpful across professions, but not among subtypes of practice within the profession of social work. Other O*NET criteria seemed less useful for purposes of defining a profession or distinguishing it from other professions.

Based upon O*NET criteria, this post raises a few thoughts worth considering, for purposes of defining social work practice and the social work profession. A comparison of Tasks, between one type of social work practice and two related mental health professions, seemed to support my sense (from coursework and reading) that master’s programs in counseling psychology tend to produce practitioners who are better trained for direct work with clients, while social work practice in the sphere of mental health may be more oriented toward directing, referring, and otherwise dealing with clients in relatively abrupt and non-therapeutic ways. There would no doubt be research literature exploring such comparisons; the impression stated here is just that which arose from my exploration of O*NET. Skills that tentatively appeared to be emphasized in counseling psych but not so much in social work included attention to client confidentiality, client leadership within the therapeutic relationship, use of validated psychometric instruments (for measuring e.g., depression), attention to suicide risk assessment and crisis intervention, and maintenance of appropriate documentation.

It appeared that a good definition of social work practice would need to go past the O*NET interface toward more direct exploration of the underlying Department of Labor data. It also appeared that such a definition would best be built up from analysis of discrete forms of social work practice (e.g., school social work, marriage and family practice, clinical mental health practice). This post did not attempt that kind of investigation. The conclusion reached here is thus more of a question: would such an analysis demonstrate the existence of a single, coherent social work profession, or would it suggest rather the need for redrawing of professional lines to recognize different practice settings — yielding, for example, a new profession of School Clinician — for which one might obtain licensing through training in departments of social work, counseling psychology, or elsewhere?

Background

In previous posts, I have criticized common definitions of social work and have distinguished the concept of genuine social work from the nature of today’s social work profession (in the U.S. and, to varying degrees, elsewhere). Those posts indicate, for example, that over the past century the profession of social work has shrunk; it has abandoned a number of areas to other professions — to public health, for example, and to public administration, and recreation, and criminology. Another post discusses that shrinking trend in more detail.

While some of my other posts have mentioned Margolin’s Under the Cover of Kindness (1997), none have provided a detailed presentation of his critique of the mindset underlying social work practice. Margolin — himself a practitioner for many years — would define today’s social work profession as, among other things, “a type of power, a way of seeing things” (p. 2) that ironically remains “oblivious to its use of power” (p. 6). According to Margolin, social work practice involves “the quiet certainty of a universe where social workers are social workers, and clients are clients” (p. 69). It uses a “tactic of deception (and self-deception) . . . to continuously speak of the institutional causes of racism and poverty . . . while keeping the discourse focused on individual-level interventions” (p. 118). It is a system in which social workers are “caught in [this] machinery just as much as clients” (p. 131). It is a “completely eclectic” form of practice indulging “an endlessly minute and complex discourse of causes, relationships, contingencies, and symptoms” to insure that “clients are subject to a constant, uninterrupted analysis” (p. 161); it is “a discipline that appears problematic in its particulars” but that never construes those particulars as evidence of its own illegitimacy (p. 171).

That sort of language can sound ideological or theoretical; it can also sound aggrieved or alienated. That is not to say it is off the mark. A review of my posts — discussing, for example, the dismal prospects facing would-be clinical social workers — may raise the question of whether Margolin has identified legitimate reasons for the high rates of emotional fatigue and burnout experienced by social work practitioners.

Whatever the research may demonstrate on those sorts of discussions, the effort in the present post is to move away from theoretical, idealistic, and general-purpose concepts and dictionary-like definitions of social work, and to turn instead toward the more practical or day-to-day question of what social workers do. Here, too, there are multiple ways of proceeding. For example, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) distributes a questionnaire, every seven years or so, to ask various questions of selected social workers, so as to arrive at an impression of what social work practice is; and then ASWB designs licensing exams that, it claims, are based on that questionnaire. In another post, I have explored ASWB’s process in considerable detail. Briefly, it does not appear that ASWB’s work is well done, and in any event its methods and detailed results are kept away from the public and even from private researchers who would like to verify ASWB’s claims. My investigation raises the question of whether ASWB manipulates its process for purposes of enhancing its own profitability.

Those remarks support the impression that corruption is very commonly encountered in today’s social work profession on the institutional level — not only at ASWB, but also in at least some of the profession’s journals, and at many of its schools of social work. Such remarks do not address the question of what social workers do all day, but they do raise cautions about how one might answer that question.

Introducing the O*NET Database

Given the risks of corruption and inaccuracy in information provided by major social work organizations, it may be best to go to an external source for insight into the nature of social work practice. One eminent and readily available source is the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S.  Department of Labor. Within that Handbook, the entry for social workers includes a tab describing what they do.

At the level of general impressions, that description might suffice: it provides an empirically based summary of what social work is, in practice. This post looks at some ways to refine that general summary, by distinguishing social work from other kinds of occupations and also by sharpening the distinctions among subtypes of social workers.

That tab in the Handbook webpage offers a list of typical duties and what it calls some “examples of types of social workers.” But further inspection reveals that BLS treats those “examples” as, in fact, the four predominant categories of social work practice:

The four links in those four categories lead to detailed pages reporting information from the O*NET database sponsored by the Department of Labor. For each of the first three of those categories, those O*NET pages identify the predominant tasks, tools, kinds of knowledge, skills, abilities, work activities, work contexts, interests, work styles, work values, and other data.

Those detailed pages are quite informative in themselves. Here are some examples of what O*NET offers, within each of those particular areas of information, using the Child, Family, and School Social Workers page as an example. Each of these is just one example; there are multiple entries under each of the following topical headings. That is, along with the example Task shown here (i.e., “Counsels individuals . . .”), O*NET lists a number of other tasks; that example is simply the first one listed. It is listed first because it draws the highest score from the Child, Family, and School Social Workers surveyed; no other task was more important in their practice.

  • Tasks: “Counsel individuals, groups, families, or communities regarding issues including mental health, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, physical abuse, rehabilitation, social adjustment, child care, or medical care.” This task is scored 88 (apparently meaning that 88% of survey respondents identify this as an important part of what they do).
  • Tools & Technology: Tools include desktop computers. Technology includes database software.
  • Knowledge: “Therapy and Counseling — Knowledge of principles, methods, and procedures for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of physical and mental dysfunctions, and for career counseling and guidance.” Score: 89.
  • Skills: “Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.” Score = 91.
  • Abilities: “Oral Comprehension — The ability to listen to and understand information and ideas presented through spoken words and sentences.” Score = 88.
  • Work Activities: “Getting Information — Observing, receiving, and otherwise obtaining information from all relevant sources. Collect information about clients. Interview clients to gather information about their backgrounds, needs, or progress. Research social issues.” Score = 94.
  • Work Context: “Telephone — How often do you have telephone conversations in this job?” Score = 100.
  • Interests: “Social — Social occupations frequently involve working with, communicating with, and teaching people. These occupations often involve helping or providing service to others.” Score = 100.
  • Work Styles: “Concern for Others — Job requires being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings and being understanding and helpful on the job.” Score = 96.
  • Work Values: “Relationships — Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to provide service to others and work with co-workers in a friendly non-competitive environment. Corresponding needs are Co-workers, Moral Values and Social Service.” Score = 95.

While this sort of information could be especially useful to people with no grasp of social work practice, it is not necessarily useful in its raw form to someone who already knows much of what the page says about this example of Child, Family, and School Social Workers. To the contrary, the long compilation of information presented on that webpage could be counterproductive for a relatively knowledgeable reader. It seemed that the risk of information overload might be reduced by learning which of the O*NET criteria seemed most useful for purposes of identifying meaningful differences among various kinds of social workers, and between social work and other professions.

Social Workers vs. Mathematicians

To obtain a sense of how O*NET might distinguish two dissimilar occcupations, I compared the foregoing list of O*NET sample items for Child, Family, and School Social Workers against the O*NET Details Report for Mathematicians. Not surprisingly, the two differed in many regards. I noticed the following contrasts — looking, again, at the first (i.e., the most important) item listed under each of the following topical headings in the Details Report for Mathematicians:

  • Tasks: “Develop computational methods for solving problems that occur in areas of science and engineering or that come from applications in business or industry.” There was no entry, on this list, comparable to the first item (above) on the social worker Tasks list (i.e., “Counsels individuals, groups, families, or communities . . . .”).
  • Knowledge: “Mathematics — Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications.” This item scored 95. The first item on the list resembling the lead example shown (above) for the social worker (i.e., “Therapy and Counseling . . . .”) was this: “Psychology — Knowledge of human behavior and performance; individual differences in ability, personality, and interests; learning and motivation; psychological research methods; and the assessment and treatment of behavioral and affective disorders.” For mathematicians, that item scored 22.
  • Skills: “Mathematics — Using mathematics to solve problems” scored 100. Active Listening scored 60.
  • Abilities: “Mathematical Reasoning — The ability to choose the right mathematical methods or formulas to solve a problem.” Oral Comprehension scored 69.
  • Work Activities: “Interacting With Computers — Using computers and computer systems (including hardware and software) to program, write software, set up functions, enter data, or process information” led the list with a score of 89. Getting Information scored 80.
  • Work Context: Email scored 96. Telephone scored 72.
  • Interests: “Investigative — Investigative occupations frequently involve working with ideas, and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.” Social scored dead last with a zero.
  • Work Styles: “Analytical Thinking — Job requires analyzing information and using logic to address work-related issues and problems.” Concern for Others was next to last on the list, with a score of 40.
  • Work Values: “Achievement — Occupations that satisfy this work value are results oriented and allow employees to use their strongest abilities, giving them a feeling of accomplishment. Corresponding needs are Ability Utilization and Achievement.” Relationships scored last, with a 17.

Not surprisingly, this comparison suggested that mathematicians and social workers had very different jobs and no doubt tended to be very different kinds of people. Even where they had some overlap, it was not clear how great that overlap might be in practice; for instance, what a mathematician and a social worker might mean by a “Getting Information” task could be fairly different.

Social Workers vs. Lawyers

Compared to mathematicians, it seemed that lawyers might be relatively similar to social workers. Going down the same list of factors, and looking again at the first item under each point of comparison, I noticed these contrasts between the Details Reports for Lawyers and Child, Family, and School Social Workers:

  • Tasks: “Represent clients in court or before government agencies.” This particular task did not appear at all on the social work list of tasks. There was, however, a parallel item for social workers — “Serve as liaisons between students, homes, schools, family services, child guidance clinics, courts, protective services, doctors, and other contacts, to help children who face problems such as disabilities, abuse, or poverty” — with a score of 87, just one point below the “Counsels individuals” item noted above.
  • Knowledge: “Law and Government — Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules, and the democratic political process” led the list. Therapy and Counseling scored only 25. The Psychology item cited by Mathematicians (above) scored 48.
  • Skills: “Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times” came in first (score 88).
  • Abilities: “Oral Expression — The ability to communicate information and ideas in speaking so others will understand” scored 91. Oral Comprehension was second, with a score of 85.
  • Work Activities: here, as with the social workers, the Getting Information item led (score 93).
  • Work Context: “Indoors, Environmentally Controlled” scored 100; Telephone scored 99.
  • Interests: “Enterprising — Enterprising occupations frequently involve starting up and carrying out projects. These occupations can involve leading people and making many decisions. Sometimes they require risk taking and often deal with business” (score 100). Social was next to last on the list (score 39).
  • Work Styles: lawyers rated “Integrity — Job requires being honest and ethical” as first (score 100). I found that dubious, but that was, in fact, the lawyers’ self-impression. Concern for Others was next to last (71).
  • Work Values: “Recognition — Occupations that satisfy this work value offer advancement, potential for leadership, and are often considered prestigious. Corresponding needs are Advancement, Authority, Recognition and Social Status.” Relationships came in last (50).

This comparison suggested several thoughts, some obvious and some not so obvious. As the Mathematician example had already demonstrated, even widely divergent professions can have some things in common. Lawyers seemed closer to social work than did Mathematicians, and this was borne out in some of the aspects just noted. In other regards, however, the two were still markedly different. In some cases, the differences would be obvious; but in other comparisons between professions, the divergence would probably be more subtle, involving not only the items selected (e.g., Abilities) but also their order and/or the way in which they were combined.

A Focus on Personality: Interests

It seemed relatively cumbersome to compare professions on the basis of some of the wordier items listed above. For example, the Tasks and Knowledge examples (above) tended to involve longer descriptions, and there tended to be many items on those lists, whereas the Interests (basically, the Holland codes) and Work Values examples were concise and were drawn, in both cases, from only six possibilities. Both Interests and Work Values seemed to be somewhat oriented toward personality types, which might be particularly useful at the stage of trying to get a general impression of a profession.

On that basis, I thought it might make sense to begin a comparison with Interests and Work Values, and then proceed to other, more detailed items as needed. A comparison between Lawyers and Child, Family, and School Social Workers, in terms of O*NET’s six types of Interests, went like this, in order of decreasing importance:

  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers: Social (100), Enterprising (56), Artistic (45), Investigative (39), Conventional (33), and finally Realistic (0).
  • Lawyers: Enterprising (100), Investigative (61), Artistic (50), Conventional (45), Social (39), and Realistic (6).

O*NET explained those terms as follows:

  • Enterprising — Enterprising occupations frequently involve starting up and carrying out projects. These occupations can involve leading people and making many decisions. Sometimes they require risk taking and often deal with business.
  • Investigative — Investigative occupations frequently involve working with ideas, and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.
  • Artistic — Artistic occupations frequently involve working with forms, designs and patterns. They often require self-expression and the work can be done without following a clear set of rules.
  • Conventional — Conventional occupations frequently involve following set procedures and routines. These occupations can include working with data and details more than with ideas. Usually there is a clear line of authority to follow.
  • Social — Social occupations frequently involve working with, communicating with, and teaching people. These occupations often involve helping or providing service to others.
  • Realistic — Realistic occupations frequently involve work activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. They often deal with plants, animals, and real-world materials like wood, tools, and machinery. Many of the occupations require working outside, and do not involve a lot of paperwork or working closely with others.

O*NET’s Advanced Search page led to a page leading to lists of occupations by each of those six Interests. Occupations ranking the Social interest first (as in social work) were heavy on physical and mental health and on education (e.g., teachers). Enterprising occupations included various kinds of managerial and executive positions, raising a question of whether lawyers would be much more likely than social workers to rank high on the Directive personality strength within the Clifton StrengthFinder.

I searched O*NET for occupations displaying Interest patterns similar to that of Child, Family, and School Social Workers: Social first, then Enterprising, then Artistic. The most similar occupations were Public Address System Announcers, Tour Guides and Escorts, Recreation Workers, Clergy, and Political Science Teachers (Postsecondary). This contrasted rather sharply against a similar search for Lawyers. In that search, the most similar occupations were Sustainability Specialists. Others with somewhat similar patterns included Film and Video Editors, Reporters and Correspondents, Industrial-Organizational Psychologists, and Urban and Regional Planners.

It was also possible to search for least similar occupations. For social workers, that pattern (beginning, that is, with an Interest pattern opposite to that of social workers) would be Realistic-Conventional-Investigative. Occupations valuing those interests included Surveyors, Airline Pilots, and Welders. For lawyers, the pattern was Realistic-Social-Conventional, and the contrasting occupations included Animal Control Workers and Surgical Technologists.

A Focus on Personality: Work Values

As noted above, the other seemingly quick route to comparison of two occupations involved O*NET’s six Work Values. A comparison between lawyers and social workers (see Details page citations, above) yielded the following ordering and scoring for Work Values:

  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers: Relationships (95), Achievement (83), Independence (72), Working Conditions (67), Support (61), and Recognition (45).
  • Lawyers: Recognition (89), Achievement (83), Independence (83), Working Conditions (83), Support (56), and Relationships (50).

O*NET explained those terms as follows:

  • Relationships — Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to provide service to others and work with co-workers in a friendly non-competitive environment. Corresponding needs are Co-workers, Moral Values and Social Service.
  • Achievement — Occupations that satisfy this work value are results oriented and allow employees to use their strongest abilities, giving them a feeling of accomplishment. Corresponding needs are Ability Utilization and Achievement.
  • Independence — Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to work on their own and make decisions. Corresponding needs are Creativity, Responsibility and Autonomy.
  • Working Conditions — Occupations that satisfy this work value offer job security and good working conditions. Corresponding needs are Activity, Compensation, Independence, Security, Variety and Working Conditions.
  • Support — Occupations that satisfy this work value offer supportive management that stands behind employees. Corresponding needs are Company Policies, Supervision: Human Relations and Supervision: Technical.
  • Recognition — Occupations that satisfy this work value offer advancement, potential for leadership, and are often considered prestigious. Corresponding needs are Advancement, Authority, Recognition and Social Status.

The two professions were thus quite similar, except that they were complete opposites in their valuation of Relationships and Recognition (swapped between first and last place). The key point here seemed to be that social workers appreciated the opportunity to provide service to others in a friendly, non-competitive environment, while that did not matter to lawyers at all. What lawyers valued most was advancement, authority, recognition, and status. It seemed, in passing, that such priorities might predict much of the contemporary American sociopolitical scene.

An O*NET search for occupations sharing the social work combination (Relationships, Achievement, and Independence, in that order) suggested that the most highly similar occupations were in mental and physical health areas, but would also include Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators. By contrast, a similar search for the lawyer combination (Recognition, Achievement, and Independence) offered the alternatives of careers (at least for lawyers with math and science backgrounds) as Geneticists, Microbiologists, Nuclear Medicine Physicians, and Preventive Medicine Physicians. A search for opposite professions, in the case of social workers (i.e., for a Recognition-Support-Working Conditions pattern), pointed toward Pharmacists and some kinds of technicians and engineers.

This brief comparison yielded the impression that, as with Interests (above), Work Values would tend to point out sharp differences between occupations, whereas other O*NET criteria (e.g., Tasks, Knowledge, Skills) might seem to highlight similarities. It seemed that both kinds of inquiries could be useful, in different circumstances. A person who had identified an interesting occupation, but who wanted to branch out and see what other occupations might be roughly similar, would want to look for tools identifying similarities across occupations, while someone who wanted to dig down and sharpen his/her specialty within a particular occupation might prefer tools emphasizing differences.

Differences Among  Main Types of Social Workers

Having compared social work against some rather different occupations, I turned to the question of whether O*NET could clearly distinguish among the several main types of social workers. To answer that question, I decided to begin with the quick criteria just mentioned, and then to proceed to other criteria as needed. Here is a comparison of Interests, among what O*NET treated as the three main kinds of social workers:

  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers: Social (100), Enterprising (56), Artistic (45), Investigative (39), Conventional (33), and Realistic (0).
  • Healthcare Social Workers: Social (100), Investigative (50), Artistic (39), Enterprising (39), Conventional (33), and Realistic (0).
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: Social (100), Investigative (61), Artistic (56), Conventional (33), Enterprising (28), and Realistic (0).

That comparison pointed out an interesting difference. Child, Family, and School Social Workers (CFSSW) have a mild Enterprising tendency, while Healthcare Social Workers (HSW) and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (MHSASW) tend toward a somewhat more Investigative nature. Next, following the previous sections, I compared Work Values among these three types of social workers:

  • CFSSW: Relationships (95), Achievement (83), Independence (72), Working Conditions (67), Support (61), and Recognition (45).
  • HSW: Relationships (95), Achievement (78), Independence (78), Working Conditions (72), Support (61), and Recognition (56).
  • MHSASW: Achievement (83), Relationships (83), Independence (72), Support (61), Working Conditions (56), and Recognition (50).

This comparison contained a subtle difference: MHSASW tend to value Achievement as highly as other social workers do, but MHSASW do not tend to value Relationships more highly than Achievement. While that was interesting, it was not very prominent. It did seem necessary to see if other O*NET criteria could distinguish these three kinds of social work practice more clearly.

Differences Among Social Workers: Tasks

As noted above, O*NET lists Tasks performed within a given occupation. This section examines differences in the most highly ranked Tasks listed by O*NET for each of the three main types of social workers. The Tasks listed here are those with an importance score of at least 85, within one or more type of social work practice. This list combines the wording of some Tasks that differ only slightly among the subtypes of social work practice.

First, there were some Tasks that did not seem to differ much among these three types of social work practice, or seemed likely to be a part of all three types. Those items, with some rewording to combine similar items, were:

  • Counsel individuals, groups, families, or communities regarding issues including substance abuse, mental or physical illness, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, physical abuse, rehabilitation, social adjustment, child care, medical care, dependencies, recovery from illness, and adjustment to life. MHSASW score 91. CFSSW score 88. HSW score 87.
  • Monitor, evaluate, and record client progress with respect to treatment goals. MHSASW score 87. HSW score 86.
  • Maintain case history records and prepare reports. CFSSW score 86.

Those Tasks aside, it appeared that HSW and CFSSW did not emphasize the same items. I decided to break them into two lists — first, the items somewhat peculiar to HSW, and then the items somewhat peculiar to CFSSW, with some MHSASW overlap:

  • Advocate for clients or patients to resolve crises. HSW score 92.
  • Refer patient, client, or family to community resources to assist in recovery from mental or physical illness and to provide access to services such as financial assistance, legal aid, housing, job placement or education. HSW score 91.
  • Collaborate with counselors, physicians, nurses, or other professionals to evaluate patients’ medical or physical condition and to plan or coordinate treatment, drawing on social work experience and patient needs. HSW score 92. MHSASW score 85.
  • Investigate child abuse or neglect cases and take authorized protective action when necessary. HSW score 90.Plan discharge from care facility to home or other care facility. HSW score 86.

 

  • Interview clients individually, in families, or in groups, review records, conduct assessments, or confer with other professionals to evaluate the mental or physical condition of clients or patients, to assess their situations, capabilities, and problems, and to determine what services are required to meet their needs. CFSSW score 87. MHSASW score 87.
  • Serve as liaisons between students, homes, schools, family services, child guidance clinics, courts, protective services, doctors, and other contacts, to help children who face problems such as disabilities, abuse, or poverty. CFSSW score 87.
  • Counsel parents with child rearing problems, interviewing the child and family to determine whether further action is required. CFSSW score 85.

Not to make too much of the vague and general wording of the various Tasks, but it did seem that HSW might be more of referral-and-collaboration practice, working with allied health professionals, while the CFSSW would be more of a lone wolf — often the only social worker in a school setting, for instance — working with teachers as fellow professionals, but perhaps with somewhat dissimilar objectives and perspectives.

As I attempted the rewording and reorganization just shown, it seemed to me that the data collection summarized in O*NET had not been entirely streamlined. There was some apparent duplication and inconsistency among questions and answers across these several types of social work practice. It did not appear that a comparison of Tasks was particularly useful, at least in this case, for anything more than adding vague and minor information and guesswork to one’s prior understanding of how a hospital social worker might differ from a school social worker.

Differences Among Social Workers:
Kinds of Knowledge, Skill, and Ability

O*NET offered lists of Knowledge items deemed important by practitioners within each of the three main types of social work practice. In this comparison, I listed scores from the top five Knowledge items. Practitioners in all three types of social work practice agreed that these five were the top Knowledge items within their specialties, though with some differences in perceived importance:

  • Therapy and Counseling — Knowledge of principles, methods, and procedures for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of physical and mental dysfunctions, and for career counseling and guidance. CFSSW score 89. MHSASW score 92. HSW score 100.
  • Psychology — Knowledge of human behavior and performance; individual differences in ability, personality, and interests; learning and motivation; psychological research methods; and the assessment and treatment of behavioral and affective disorders. CFSSW score 88. MHSASW score 96. HSW score 99.
  • English Language — Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar. CFSSW score 76. MHSASW score 77. HSW score 87.
  • Sociology and Anthropology — Knowledge of group behavior and dynamics, societal trends and influences, human migrations, ethnicity, cultures and their history and origins. CFSSW score 68. MHSASW score 82. HSW score 75.
  • Customer and Personal Service — Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction. CFSSW score 66. MHSASW score 85. HSW score 86.

Here, again, there were some points of difference. It was interesting, for example, that Customer and Personal Service was rated so much lower in CFSSW than in the other two specialties. Otherwise, though, as with the comparison of Tasks, this comparison of kinds of Knowledge did not highlight significant differences among the three main types of social work practice.

The situation was much the same in the O*NET area of Skills. The key skills listed by practitioners in the three main types of social work practice included Active Listening, Speaking, Reading Comprehension, Social Perceptiveness, Coordination, and Critical Thinking, with relatively minor differences in their rankings and scores. Active Listening, at the top of the list in all three specialties, was scored from 81 (HSW) to 91 (CFSSW). Scores for the others all ranged between 72 and 81, except that Speaking scored 91 in CFSSW and Coordination scored only 63 (and ranked 12th) on the list of CFSSW skills.

It was interesting to play with O*NET’s Skills Search webpage. That webpage characterized the social work skills listed in the preceding paragraph (e.g., Active Listening) as “Basic Skills.” The list of ten Basic Skills included Active Learning, Active Listening, Critical Thinking, Reading Comprehension, Speaking, and Writing. (Other examples, not strongly represented in social workers (above), included Mathematics and Science.) It appeared they were called “basic,” not because they were easy, but because they were fundamental to the other sets of skills listed there: Complex Problem Solving Skills, Resource Management Skills, Social Skills, System Skills, and Technical Skills. I checked the boxes for the six Basic Skills just listed (e.g., Active Learning), along with all of the Social Skills (i.e., Coordination, Instructing, Negotiation, Persuasion, Service Orientation, and Social Perceptiveness). There was a pronounced difference in the results: healthcare and mental health social workers ranked near the top, along with other kinds of mental health workers, while child and family social workers ranked somewhat lower, among various kinds of teachers and engineers. It was not clear which factors were especially important in those divergent rankings. I could only surmise that healthcare social work might tend to attract or require people with attitudes similar to their fellow professionals (e.g., nurses), and likewise for child and school social workers (e.g., teachers).

Finally, in O*NET’s lists of Abilities, the three main types of social work practice were once again quite similar. Practitioners in all three specialties gave scores of at least 70 to these abilities, and in approximately this (descending) order: Oral Comprehension, Oral Expression, Problem Sensitivity, Deductive Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning, Written Comprehension, and Speech Clarity. For all three types of practice, other abilities ranked near or above the score of 70 included Speech Recognition and Written Expression. On this basis, it did not appear that O*NET’s lists of kinds of knowledge, skill, and ability were useful for distinguishing among types of social workers, though the Skills Search tool might have been useful for some purposes.

I did not engage in a study of Work Activities or Work Context areas within O*NET’s presentation, other than to observe that these, too, appeared very similar among the three main types of social work practice. The Work Styles area appeared potentially useful — though, again, more so for purposes of distinguishing among divergent occupations than for highlighting differences among types of social workers. For instance, all three types of social workers placed high importance upon Concern for Others, Stress Tolerance, and Self Control, along with other Work Style items. Unfortunately, O*NET’s Advanced Search page did not offer an option for searching by specific Work Styles.

Putting It All Together:
Comparing Social Work to
Related Mental Health Professions

The preceding sections have taken two approaches. First, there were comparisons of social workers against mathematicians and lawyers. These comparisons were easy to make; a few summary O*NET criteria were sufficient to highlight major differences. Then there were explorations of more detailed O*NET criteria to distinguish among highly similar types of social work practice. O*NET contributed less to those close comparisons: while there were a few interesting contrasts, it was not clear that O*NET added much to the general impressions one might get from reading other materials about those different forms of practice.

This section offers a comparison somewhere between the very different work of mathematicians and lawyers and the very similar work of different types of social workers. It seems O*NET tends to be most useful in the former kind of comparison, involving what BLS characterizes as distinct occupations. At this point, I thought it might be possible to test the extent of that usefulness by comparing social work against distinct occupations that BLS considers similar to social work.

The preceding sections demonstrated that counseling and other mental health work tends to predominate in most social workers’ concepts of their occupations. The Occupational Outlook Handbook listed nine occupations similar to social work. Among those nine, several were similar to subtypes of social work practice. For example, it appeared that people with master’s degrees in counseling psychology could enter several specialties with some similarity to social work.

I was not interested in an overly narrow comparison; I wanted to develop a general-purpose contrast between social work and similar work done by those counseling psych people. Hence, I decided to compare O*NET’s categories of Mental Health Counselors (MHCs) and Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) against Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (MHSASWs). It would also have been possible to compare School and Career Counselors against Child, Family, and School Social Workers, but that comparison seemed likely to be affected by school setting peculiarities not typical of social work practice generally, with less of the psychological element common across social work occupations. Besides, that comparison did not seem to offer as close a match: career counselors seemed more likely to be found in universities and corporations, and less likely to appear in elementary schools.

The preceding sections identified Interests and Work Values as O*NET criteria that seemed particularly useful. While other criteria had not been very helpful in distinguishing among types of social workers, it was possible that some of them might be more worthwhile when comparing across somewhat less similar occupations. In this comparison of MHCs, MFTs, and MHSASWs, I decided to focus on Interests and Work Values, and to  take at least a brief look at some of the other criteria.

In terms of Interests, the comparison stacked up like this:

  • MHCs: Social (100), Investigative (61), Artistic (50), Conventional (22), Enterprising (22), and Realistic (6).
  • MFTs: Social (100), Artistic (56), Investigative (50), Enterprising (28), Conventional (22), and Realistic (0).
  • MHSASWs: Social (100), Investigative (61), Artistic (56), Conventional (33), Enterprising (28), and Realistic (0).

In that comparison, MHSASWs seemed very similar to MHCs, and only moderately less similar to MFTs. The Work Values comparison was as follows:

  • MHCs: Relationships (89), Achievement (72), Independence (72), Recognition (61), Working Conditions (53), and Support (33).
  • MFTs: Relationships (100), Independence (83), Achievement (78), Working Conditions (72), Recognition (67), and Support (28).
  • MHSASWs: Achievement (83), Relationships (83), Independence (72), Support (61), Working Conditions (56), and Recognition (50).

That comparison was not as close. In light of O*NET’s explanations of these Work Values (available on the O*NET pages linked above — for e.g., MFTs), it appeared that all three occupations valued Relationships, Achievement, and Independence, though not necessarily in that order, and not to the same extent. Perhaps the most significant difference, for present purposes, was that MFTs were all about relationships, to a degree not found in the other two occupations.

These comparisons of Interests and Work Values did not seem nearly as clear in this context as they had been in the comparisons of social workers against mathematicians and lawyers. It did seem advisable to try some of those other O*NET criteria.

Tasks in Social Work and
Other Mental Health Professions

A look at Tasks that scored at least 85 yielded this comparison among those three mental health professions:

MHC Tasks Scored 85+

  • Maintain confidentiality of records relating to clients’ treatment.
  • Encourage clients to express their feelings and discuss what is happening in their lives, helping them to develop insight into themselves or their relationships.
  • Collect information about clients through interviews, observation, or tests.
  • Assess patients for risk of suicide attempts.
  • Fill out and maintain client-related paperwork, including federal- and state-mandated forms, client diagnostic records, and progress notes.
  • Prepare and maintain all required treatment records and reports.
  • Counsel clients or patients, individually or in group sessions, to assist in overcoming dependencies, adjusting to life, or making changes.
  • Guide clients in the development of skills or strategies for dealing with their problems.
  • Perform crisis interventions with clients.
  • Develop and implement treatment plans based on clinical experience and knowledge.

MFT Tasks Scored 85+

  • Ask questions that will help clients identify their feelings and behaviors.
  • Counsel clients on concerns, such as unsatisfactory relationships, divorce and separation, child rearing, home management, and financial difficulties.
  • Encourage individuals and family members to develop and use skills and strategies for confronting their problems in a constructive manner.
  • Maintain case files that include activities, progress notes, evaluations, and recommendations.

MHSASW Tasks Scored 85+

  • Counsel clients in individual or group sessions to assist them in dealing with substance abuse, mental or physical illness, poverty, unemployment, or physical abuse.
  • Monitor, evaluate, and record client progress with respect to treatment goals.
  • Interview clients, review records, conduct assessments, or confer with other professionals to evaluate the mental or physical condition of clients or patients.
  • Collaborate with counselors, physicians, or nurses to plan or coordinate treatment, drawing on social work experience and patient needs.

This comparison highlighted some differences. In general, there seemed to be a difference in breadth, with MHCs listing more than twice as many highly important tasks as MFTs or MHSASWs. It seemed that MHCs might be better trained — might have, that is, a broader or more detailed concept of their practice. This possibility was supported by several observations:

  • At the top of the list, MHCs expressed a preeminent belief in the importance of client confidentiality. My years in schools of social work education had been somewhat shocking in that regard: the subject of confidentiality had generally been treated as relatively unimportant. I had witnessed numerous blatant breaches of confidentiality and a culture of gossip. This was all very different from my legal training and experience, and from what I had gotten in my counseling psych coursework. Indeed, confidentiality was not even identified as a Task in the data reported on O*NET’s pages for MFTs and MHSASWs.
  • MHC training emphasizes getting out of the way — taking pains to avoid influencing or limiting what the client will say, or will feel comfortable in saying, in counseling sessions. Hence the MHCs were the only ones, among these three professions, that considered it very important to “encourage clients to express their feelings,” although MFTs did at least indicate that they considered it important to ask questions to help clients identify their feelings and behaviors. No doubt social workers would do that to some extent as well; the point here seemed to be that MHSASWs did not readily identify such questioning (or, in my experience, other key counseling skills) as essential to their work.
  • MHCs are taught how to use psychological instruments — to know that there exist many different kinds of questionnaires, for instance, that have been developed and studied as tools for identifying depression or other states of mind, and to use such tools to establish a benchmark and to detect significant changes. I saw no comparable training in social work, and here, again, the O*NET information for MFTs does not suggest that their training offers much along those lines.
  • MHCs were the only ones identifying suicide risk assessment and crisis intervention as important parts of their job.
  • For MHCs, there appeared to be a much greater emphasis, not just on reviewing records, but on filling out and maintaining paperwork related to client treatment. MFTs did indicate that case file maintenance was important. As I had discovered, attitudes toward maintaining good documentation in social work could be more lackadaisical.
  • All three professions had a counseling component. MHCs were unique, however, in emphasizing client guidance in developing skills and strategies — as distinct from, for example, merely dishing out orders on what the client needs to change, and leaving it to the client to figure out how. Not to make too much of differences in wording, but it did not seem quite the same when MFTs said it was important to encourage clients to develop and use such skills and strategies. Generally, in this area of counseling, O*NET’s list of key MHSASW tasks seemed less respectful, less concerned about being good helpers, and more directive or, as Margolin (above) would say, controlling. That impression was supported, not only by the things said and not said in the Tasks scored 85+ (above), but also in the other Tasks listed by O*NET. For example, there did not seem to be an MHSASW counterpart for the MHC Tasks of “Discuss with individual patients their plans for life after leaving therapy” or “Learn about new developments in counseling by reading professional literature [and] attending courses and seminars.”

As shown above, it had been unnecessary to conduct this sort of Task analysis when comparing social workers to mathematicians or lawyers. It had been unhelpful to conduct such an analysis when comparing types of social workers. But it appeared quite helpful at the intermediate level, involving comparisons among fairly similar yet (in this case) educationally distinct occupations.

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities
in Social Work and
Other Mental Health Professions

Encouraged by that comparison of O*NET Tasks among these three mental health professions, I decided to compare O*NET’s lists of areas of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities that practitioners deemed especially important. Here are the Knowledge areas scoring at least 50, listed in decreasing order for each of the three professions:

  • MHCs: Psychology (99), Therapy and Counseling (98), Customer and Personal Service (89), Sociology and Anthropology (83),  English Language (82), Education and Training (79), Clerical (63), Philosophy and Theology (58), Law and Government (57), Administration and Management (55).
  • MFTs: Therapy and Counseling (100), Psychology (97), Customer and Personal Service (76), English Language (66), Sociology and Anthropology (60), Philosophy and Theology (56), Medicine and Dentistry (50).
  • MHSASWs: Psychology (96), Therapy and Counseling (92), Customer and Personal Service (85), Sociology and Anthropology (82), English Language (77), Clerical (62), Education and Training (61), Computers and Electronics (56).

In all three occupations, the leading Knowledge areas were Psychology, Therapy and Counseling, and Customer and Personal Service. Interestingly, though, Customer and Personal Service was ranked rather lower by MFTs than by the others, and Sociology and Anthropology was ranked much lower. MFTs also scored Medicine and Dentistry noticeably higher than did the other two, both of which gave it scores in the 30s. MHSASWs scored knowledge about Computers and Electronics about 15-20 points higher than did the other two, suggesting that MHSASWs might spent relatively more time processing paperwork or dealing with databases.

Those thoughts, while interesting, seemed relatively minor. As before, then, I proceeded on to the Skills criterion. Here are the top five Skills in each profession:

  • MHCs: Active Listening (97), Social Perceptiveness (94), Service Orientation (78), Speaking (78), Critical Thinking (72).
  • MFTs: Active Listening (94), Social Perceptiveness (81), Judgment and Decision Making (78), Service Orientation (78), Speaking (78).
  • MHSASWs: Active Listening (85), Social Perceptiveness (81), Speaking (81), Reading Comprehension (75), and Coordination, Critical Thinking, Monitoring, and Service Orientation (tied at 72).

The higher scores given by MHCs to Active Listening and Social Perceptiveness, and the somewhat lower weight given to Service Orientation, seemed to corroborate the impression (above) that social work tends to be more directive and less client-driven than counseling psychology. It was interesting that MFTs scored Judgment and Decision Making so much more highly than did MHSASWs (60). I was not sure what to make of that difference, however. At this point, I took another look at O*NET’s Skills Search tool, but once again it was only mildly informative.

Finally, I looked at O*NET’s lists of Abilities scored 75+:

  • MHCs: Oral Comprehension (88), Oral Expression (88), Problem Sensitivity (85), Inductive Reasoning (78), Written Comprehension (78), Written Expression (78), Deductive Reasoning (75), Speech Clarity (75), Speech Recognition (75).
  • MFTs: Oral Comprehension (85), Oral Expression (78), Problem Sensitivity (78), Speech Clarity (78), Deductive Reasoning (75), Inductive Reasoning (75), Speech Recognition (75), Written Comprehension (75), Written Expression (75).
  • MHSASWs: Oral Comprehension (88), Oral Expression (85), Problem Sensitivity (78), Deductive Reasoning (75), Inductive Reasoning (75), Written Comprehension (75), Written Expression (75).

Once again, these lists were highly similar. No doubt a comparison of O*NET’s Abilities would be informative across very different occupations, especially if the searcher was particularly interested in a specific Ability. For example, an O*NET Advanced Search for Problem Sensitivity (i.e., awareness of actual or potential problems) indicated that such sensitivity was deemed much more important in some other occupations and also that some other occupations tended to have notably higher levels of such sensitivity. (Anesthesiology was an example of both.) But it did not appear that these Abilities would be very informative for comparisons of similar occupations.

Generally, it seemed odd that ASWB would design its social work licensing exams around lists of kinds of knowledge, skill, and ability. At least in this analysis of O*NET information, it was not clear that knowledge, skills, and abilities were the primary factors distinguishing social work from related mental health professions. That would be all right, if the purpose of licensing exams was simply to detect general qualification to engage in mental health practice. But in that case one would presumably just need one exam for MHCs, MFTs, and MHSASWs — and that conclusion might put ASWB out of business, and might also highlight competitive deficiencies in any such profession’s training for mental health practice. If social work did have something unique and important to contribute to the ways of engaging in such practice, it was not evident in this analysis. To the contrary, the question arising here was the obvious one: why have three (or more) different professions doing substantially the same thing?

Work Activities, Context, and Styles
in Social Work and
Other Mental Health Professions

 Here were the Work Activities items scored at least 80 in importance, across these three mental health professions:

  • MHCs: Assisting and Caring for Others (94), Documenting/Recording Information (89), Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships (89), Getting Information (83), Performing for or Working Directly with the Public (83), Updating and Using Relevant Knowledge (83), Resolving Conflicts and Negotiating with Others (81).
  • MFTs: Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships (96), Assisting and Caring for Others (94), Documenting/Recording Information (90), Making Decisions and Solving Problems (86), Getting Information (83), Organizing, Planning, and Prioritizing Work (82), Resolving Conflicts and Negotiating with Others (82), Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates (80), Thinking Creatively (80).
  • MHSASWs: Assisting and Caring for Others (91), Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates (91), Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships (90), Documenting/Recording Information (87), Getting Information (84), Resolving Conflicts and Negotiating with Others (81), Identifying Objects, Actions, and Events (80).

There were a few divergences in this comparison. First, the high score given by MHSASWs to Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates seemed to support the impression that this kind of social work practice was more oriented toward consulting, referring, collaborating, and otherwise taking a team approach and/or passing on the actual therapeutic work to mental health specialists. (For MHCs, the score given to that item was only 72.) The high score given to Documenting/Recording Information by all three occupations seemed to limit some of my remarks (above) regarding differences in emphasis upon documentation among these occupations. Generally, though, these professions seemed largely similar in terms of Work Activities.

O*NET’s top five Work Context items for these occupations were as follows:

  • MHCs: Structured vs. Unstructured Work (95), Contact with Others (94), Telephone (93), Freedom to Make Decisions (91), Face-to-Face Discussions (90).
  • MFTs: Indoors, Environmentally Controlled (100), Telephone (100), Face-to-Face Discussions (99), Contact with Others (96), Electronic Mail (93).
  • MHSASWs: Electronic Mail (97), Face-to-Face Discussions (96), Telephone (96), Contact with Others (94), Indoors, Environmentally Controlled (88).

For the most part, O*NET characterized these Work Context items as having to do with interpersonal relationships rather than physical work conditions (e.g., Outdoors) or structural job characteristics (e.g., importance of being accurate). For example, in the case of the Telephone item, the question was, “How often do you have telephone conversations in this job?” The idea appeared to be that survey participants considered these to be the key questions or characteristics related to the social, physical, and managerial contexts in which work was performed. There were no surprises here. A quick look confirmed that the same was true, once again, of the Work Styles factor; hence, I decided not to bother presenting it in any detail.

These results suggested that, as with Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (above), O*NET’s coverage of Work Activities, Work Context, and Work Styles did not provide much aid in distinguishing among these three mental health professions. These, too, appeared to be criteria that would be more useful in distinguishing relatively divergent occupations.

Recap:
Comparing Social Work to
Related Mental Health Professions

The several preceding sections have discussed O*NET’s information on Mental Health Counselors (MHCs), Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs), and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (MHSASWs). Based on that discussion, those three occupations generally appear so similar as to raise the question of whether they should just be aspects of one mental health profession — of whether they would be one profession, were it not for institutional barriers (in e.g., divergent university faculties and licensing boards).

In this comparison, the most notable distinctions came in the discussion of Tasks, where there appeared to be some support for my impression that MHCs tend to be better trained than social workers for the specific tasks arising in one-on-one counseling. This discussion did not explore the question of whether that conclusion would hold in other cross-disciplinary comparisons, such as one between counseling psych and social work people working in elementary schools.

Questions arising in this comparison tended to echo questions or beliefs I had before beginning this comparison. It seemed likely that a more thorough analysis of Department of Labor data on occupations would refine and/or rebut some tentative conclusions reached here.

Conclusion:  Using O*NET to Define Social Work

The O*NET interface, examined in relatively brief fashion, appeared primarily useful for purposes of distinguishing relatively dissimilar occupations (e.g., social work vs. law). Even in that context, the interface was limited, insofar as it did not always provide the desired categories; for example, there was not a page combining data for all forms of social work practice. When used to compare relatively similar occupations (e.g., MHC vs. MHSASW), the O*NET interface seemed useful mainly for raising questions for further study.

In this relatively superficial inquiry into Department of Labor data via O*NET, it appeared that social work might best be defined as a set of several overlapping occupations, with a significant mental health component. To refine that somewhat, the final sections of this post compared one kind of social work practice to a few related mental health occupations. In that comparison, there were indications that social work training might be inferior to training in counseling psychology for purposes of working with clients — or, to put it another way, that social work practice might be oriented more toward managing cases, with considerable attention to referring and steering clients among multiple service providers, than toward qualified direct mental health practice. To the extent that impression is justified, there would be a question of whether social workers should be licensed to provide clinical mental health services. It was not clear whether such impressions would be supported by comparisons of other O*NET types of social work practice (e.g., Child, Family, and School Social Work), or of more coherent subtypes (e.g., school social work) against similar alternative occupations (e.g., school psychologist).

In short, it did seem possible to define contemporary social work practice in light of governmental labor force data, in this country and to varying degrees in other countries as well. This post did not explore the many dimensions of such a definition. Tentatively, it appeared that the best way of defining today’s practice of social work might be to begin with key work settings (e.g., healthcare, clinical mental health, schools), identify the core abilities and other criteria that should be met for practice in each such setting, determine the extent to which social workers are prepared in those core areas, and then identify additives or divergences (e.g., different codes of professional ethics) among types of professionals practicing in such settings. Whether such an effort would find real and important differences that should be maintained among such professionals is not presently clear. But if such differences did emerge with clarity, it would seem that one might then have a coherent, practice-based definition of social work.

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