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9 March 2006

Good News for Social Work Majors

Landmark Study Warns of Impending Labor Force Shortages
for Social Work Profession

Services to Millions Threatened

[Washington, DC] [March 8, 2006] - At a news conference today, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) released the results of a national study of licensed social workers.  The findings warn of an impending shortage of social workers that threaten future services for all Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us, children and older adults.

"From adoption to geriatrics, hundreds of thousands of social workers in the United States play a critical role in the lives of millions of Americans," says Tracy Whitaker, director of the NASW Center for Workforce Studies. "The findings of this study emphasize the need to assure a qualified social work labor force for the future. Predicted changes in the country's demographics over the next years are expected to increase the demand for social work services."  

NASW conducted the study, "Assuring the Sufficiency of a Frontline Workforce: A National Study of Licensed Social Workers" in response to a sense of urgency to plan for future needs for the social work profession. The study was conducted with the Center for Health Workforce Studies, University at Albany.  Funding for this research was made< possible by the generosity of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the John A. Hartford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Study Findings:

The number of new social workers providing services to older adults is decreasing, despite projected increases in the number of older adults who will need social work services. Social workers provide valuable services to older adults and their families. They help clients to negotiate the healthcare and social welfare systems, to provide resources essential to living and to address the challenges that come with aging.  With the aging of the baby boom generation and breakthroughs in medicine contributing to longer life spans, the number and percentage of Americans 60 years of age and older will surge.  The need and demand for social work services for the aging will increase dramatically.  Linda Harootyan, deputy director of the Gerontological Society of America, spoke about the challenges social workers face in aging-related practice.

"For older adults with complex care needs, social workers are often the linchpins helping individuals and their families coordinate and navigate a care plan involving multiple providers and support systems," says Brian Hofland, director of the Aging Program at the Atlantic Philanthropies.  "With the aging of the huge baby boom cohort, it is critical that we have adequate numbers of trained and active geriatric social workers to meet the tremendous needs; the results of the NASW study underscore how far we have to go in meeting that goal."

The supply of licensed social workers is insufficient to meet the needs of organizations serving children and families. Social workers fill a vital role in serving children and their families through an array of services, such as counseling, case management, information and referral, and crisis intervention in diverse settings. The NASW study points out that the social work profession has maintained its historical commitment to providing services to children and families, yet social workers face serious challenges that hinder their retention in the field.  William Bell, president and CEO of Casey Family Programs, spoke about issues social workers face related to foster care.

Workload expansion plus fewer resources impedes social worker retention. Social workers in a variety of settings described increased workloads and diminished supports.  In health care settings, social workers see clients with a broad range of diagnoses, especially chronic medical conditions, psychosocial stressors, acute medical conditions, co-occurring disorders and physical disabilities.

Social workers are also the largest providers of mental health services in the country. However, steady increases in client caseloads, the severity of client problems, in addition to diminishing resources make meeting the needs of clients more difficult.

 Ellen Stovall, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, spoke about the critical role of social workers with oncology patients. Agencies struggle to fill social work vacancies. In all areas of social work practice, unfilled vacancies were an issue. Agencies have resorted to outsourcing and hiring non-professional staff to fill empty slots, an indicator of current labor market supply deficits. Because more than half of health care social workers work in hospitals in metropolitan areas, an additional challenge is to provide comprehensive services to people living in rural areas.

"Social workers are one of the largest and most diverse health professions in the United States," says Dr. Elizabeth Clark, executive director of NASW.  "They have the education and training to look at how all factors in a person's life—family, work, health and mental health—work together.

This study highlights the need to find new and innovative ways for the social work profession to retain the current workforce and recruit new social workers to accommodate the impending demand."

This compelling study calls into question the sufficiency of the critical frontline workforce, particularly to serve the increasing needs of aging baby boomers.  The findings of this research are driving future activities in the social work profession.

For complete information about NASW's Center for Workforce Studies and the national survey of licensed social workers in the United States, please visit

About the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, D.C.—it is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world.  NASW seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

For more information or to schedule interviews, contact Allison Nadelhaft at 202-336-8228 or Dan Rene at 202-347-1952.


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