Stemming the state’s social worker shortage
California’s most vulnerable populations at risk, Berkeley dean tells state Assembly

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



James Midgley is helping the state find ways to tackle the shortage of social workers in California.
Noah Berger photo

22 March 2001 | Though California is currently focused on its shortage of energy, a shortage of social workers is quickly getting the attention of state leaders because of its potential to affect significantly the state’s mentally ill and children at risk.

“Right now, there is an urgent need for some 3,000 social workers, with several thousand more required in the near future,” said James Midgley, dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Social Welfare, who has been instrumental in helping the state find solutions to the growing crisis. “The demand for social workers is growing, particularly in the child welfare sector, but supply has remained flat.”

State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, chair of the Committee on Human Services, recently conducted a hearing on the shortage at which Midgley and other social service experts testified.

“To my knowledge, it was the first time ever that social work professors and practitioners have addressed state lawmakers on the work that we do,” said Midgley of the historic gathering.

Berkeley’s role in addressing the situation, said Midgley, is to use its established research agenda to gather data on the state’s social service programs. For example, more detailed statistics are needed on what the state’s needs are, where opportunities exist, which programs are successful, and what the scientific basis is for intervention.

“I see Berkeley emerging as a important think tank for this issue,” said Midgley, “and a significant resource for the state and federal government.”

The shortage of social workers affects the continuity of care, especially for vulnerable populations, increases the workload for already overburdened staff, and makes it difficult for agencies to meet legal requirements for adequate care, said Midgley.

The shortfalls are a result of program cuts, he said, starting with the slashing of social services in the early 1980s and continuing during the state’s budget crunch of the early 1990s.

To deal with funding shortages, agencies began declassifying positions that were normally held by higher-paid social workers with master’s degrees.

“There was this notion that professionals weren’t necessary to perform this work,” said Midgley. “All that was needed was someone to fill out paperwork, get clients into the system and process checks.”

With fewer jobs available for professionals, fewer students enrolled in academic social work programs. And the current overload of work makes it difficult to recruit and retain the professionals who remain in the field, said Midgley.

With state coffers once again flush and the child welfare situation at the breaking point, said Midgley, lawmakers are turning their attention back to social services and wondering where they can find the professional social workers.

“There is pressure on the state’s schools to produce more students,” said Midgley. “But they can’t suddenly turn out 500 more graduates a year. It takes time to build up these programs.”

There are other techniques, besides graduating more master’s degree holders, that can more quickly remedy the situation, he said.

Among the suggestions aired at the hearing was the creation of paraprofessional programs and increasing community college and undergraduate programs. A three-tiered system of non-accredited bachelor’s degree holders and accredited bachelor’s and master’s degree holders could help solve the shortage, Midgley said. Not all areas of social work require someone with a master’s degree, he said, so teams of social workers with undergraduate degrees can be managed by social workers with master’s degrees.

Another recommendation was for the state to pass legislation providing financial support for those seeking social work degrees, such as loan forgiveness programs.

To help further with the growing shortage, Midgley said he would like to re-focus Berkeley’s undergraduate curriculum, incorporating service learning to give students practical experience in the field.

Aroner has appointed a task force — with representatives from state and county social services, unions, professional associations, licensing boards, the California State University system, Berkeley and UCLA — to explore this issue further. The group will meet in April to look at how they can enhance the capacity of schools for new students. Future hearings are also scheduled.


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