What legislators can do about Maine’s social worker shortage

Posted May 20, 2013, at 12:45 p.m.

Social work is defined as the professional activity of helping individuals, groups or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to this goal. There is no doubt that our fine state is in desperate need of highly skilled social workers. To become a highly skilled social worker, however, one needs a strong education. Education often comes with a high price tag and social work is not a highly paid field.

To compensate for the disparity behind the education needed to be a social worker and the lower wages in the field, there is an act before the current Legislature. This act, LD 1036, is an Act to Amend the Social Work Education Loan Repayment Program. LD 1036 would increase the number of eligible applicants from five per year to 40 per year. These applicants could receive up to $1,000 toward repayment of their educational loans. Though this is a drop in the bucket needed to entice the most educated, skilled social workers to stay here in the state of Maine, it is a step in the right direction.

Maine is a rural state, although the average pay for a social worker in the Portland area is higher than the national average. By the time you reach Bangor, the average annual salary for a social worker has fallen below the national average. Retention of skilled social workers is especially important in rural areas — where the need is great but access to services is limited. Low wages, combined with rural or extremely rural living, is unlikely to entice the most skilled social workers to those areas in greatest need of the services. LD 1036 is a step in the right direction to encourage skilled social workers to stay in our state and in the areas of greatest need.

Although the starting pay of an engineer versus a social worker is often $10,000 to $20,000 a year greater, their educational costs are often remarkably similar. Those who enter the field of social work do so knowing they will never strike it rich on the salaries they earn. Social workers often enter the field due to a drive and desire to assist marginalized and at-risk populations in order to assist those populations in achieving the highest quality of life. Social workers are the ones who put the proverbial boots on those who do not have boots, let alone bootstraps to pull themselves up with.

The desire to assist at-risk populations comes with a high price tag and low monetary return. While an argument could be made that low wages are a risk social workers take when entering the field, it should be kept in mind that though the field pays low wages, many other states pay on the higher end of those low wages.

Considering the high need for social workers in the state of Maine, one should also consider the working conditions many in the field of social work endure. Social workers are often called to serve individuals or families, which can often put them in dangerous conditions. Many social workers put their lives and health at risk in order to serve their clients and families. Health and safety risks are a natural hazard of the job when you are working with populations with substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence issues.

For social workers, there is no hazard pay. There is no additional compensation for risking your health and safety to put those proverbial boots on others.

When you combine the low wages, physical and emotional health risks, along with the high educational costs, it is shocking anyone would enter the field of social work. To understand why individuals enter the field, you have to develop and understanding that those individuals truly believe they can make a difference in the lives of the populations they serve.

Consider the story about the boy on the beach throwing starfish into the water one by one. In that story, a man approaches the child and says, “You cannot possibly save them all. You are wasting your time.” In response to the man, while throwing a starfish back into the water, the child replies, “I made a difference to that one.” That story reflects the heart of social workers everywhere.

The state of Maine needs highly skilled social workers desperately. Social work is a fast-growing occupation in this state and by 2020, social work will be one of the top 25 occupations in this state with the largest number of openings annually. Maine needs to support social workers in the work they do and ensure that the most highly skilled social work professionals remain here in the state of Maine. LD 1036 is a step in that direction.

Heather Gosselin of Orrington is a licensed social worker and a Master of Social Work student at the University of Maine.

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