Social Work Career Promotion Tool Kit shares benefits and pathways to rewarding careers

Valerie Jemerson, Tool Kit designer and LEO talent development liaison, and Robert Sheehan take a look at the final Tool Kit.
According to the National Association of Social Workers, Michigan has about 31,000 licensed social workers. However, by 2032, the Michigan Health Council states that the state will need to add more than 41,000 licensed social workers to its ranks. 

In an effort to increase awareness of the opportunities in the social work field — as well as debunk myths — the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan (CMHA) and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) have come together to create an online resource, Social Work Career Promotion Tool Kit.

"There just is not enough of us,” says Josh Williams, executive director of quality management for LifeWays, a community mental health agency in Jackson County. Williams has both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. “Somebody recently referenced that even if every licensed professional worked in a nonprofit organization, we'd still be short 1,000 individuals."

Josh Williams
Focusing on the positives: Flexibility and impacting lives

When LEO looked at job classifications, specifically which area in behavioral health had the most prevalent workforce shortages, they determined it was social work. CMHA executive director Robert Sheehan says that the Tool Kit is designed to enhance recruitment and promote social work career opportunities across the state.

“The promotional campaign actually is aimed at the public image of social work,” Sheehan says. “The image has been misdescribed to the public, which is not only true for social work, but for teachers, law enforcement, child care professionals, and anyone doing direct care work. Those four or five professions all suffer that same sense of lack of value."

The Tool Kit includes sample language for websites, emails, and social media posts as well as recommended language for various professionals, including high school guidance counselors, college academic advisors, and behavioral health providers. There are also photographs and images for outreach on social media and other platforms.

Designed to help community mental health (CMH) agencies connect with those interested in the field, the toolkit focuses on talking points that provide information on what social work is, because a lot of people do not know about all the different career opportunities in the field — careers that can help change someone’s life. 

“I'm getting bachelor's level students, and I'm telling them if you want the most diverse field, if you want to go be a counselor, you don't have to get a counseling degree, you can be a counselor as a social worker,” Williams says. “If you want to be a therapist, you don't have to get a counseling degree, you can be a social worker. As a social worker, you can be in data, you can be in quality, you can be in all these different things where the other degrees are not necessarily designed that way.”

Robert Sheehan
Getting creative in recruiting and retention

The diversity of roles within the social work profession can also be a double-edged sword. Some social workers pull away from direct care because of the other paths available. Williams admits he did. After working in direct care, he transitioned to focusing on the processes of coordinating with the community and creating access. 

The state has given the green light to several areas where social workers are reimbursable for services, Williams says. To do some direct care work, a person is required to have at least a year of experience and take an examination to receive a limited BSW license. (The average wage for an entry level social worker is between $40,000 and $50,000.)

To earn a higher wage requires a master’s in social work. But meanwhile, the person gains experience and, once they get their master’s, they can move up into administration, the private sector, or work as counselors in schools. Williams notes that a push from the state, as well nationally, has increased the number of 24/7 crisis centers that need master’s-level clinicians who not only want to work in direct care but also are willing to work second or third shift. 

“From a hiring perspective, we've had to get really creative in how we look at reimbursing services,” Williams says. “We've had to hire less credentialed staff to do different types of work to try to meet the needs. So, you've seen an increase in community health workers or peer support to try and offset the fact that you can't hire licensed individuals.”

Like LifeWays, Sanilac County Community Mental Health (SCCMH) also has had to get creative in recruiting and retention. For the first time in five years, SCCMH director Wilbert Morris is looking at the possibility of being fully staffed. But with people leaving the direct care field, the need for social workers and an upcoming expansion, Morris admits ”my fully-staff status will be relatively short-lived.”

Wil MorrisMorris says Sanilac County CMH took a look at its benefits package. Seeing how the needs for paid time off (PTO) varied, the CMH combined vacation time, sick days, and personal days all under PTO, so employees had more flexibility. The CMH also has a robust employee appreciation program and values getting feedback from employees.

“We had a group of staff who wanted to have a Euchre game. So, we sponsored a Euchre game after hours one day, and 20 staff members came in to play cards. Now they want to make it a monthly thing,” Morris says. “This builds morale and camaraderie, and then they refer their friends because we're a nice place to work. It’s really starting to grow for those reasons.”

SCCMH also opens its doors more to students who are interested in exploring the mental health field. Morris works to pair them with a staff member to learn about the field. The CMH also has expanded its internships to include both bachelor’s and graduate opportunities.

LifeWays also focuses on internships along with building relationships with schools to get in front of students. Through the internships, the student is treated like an employee and is taught different skills. Lifeways also has created a simulation course to help with the licensing exam and helps those interested in going back to earn a master’s degree. 

Social Work Career Promotion Tool Kit
Social Work Tool Kit is only the start

The Social Work Career Promotion Tool Kit is one facet of a multi pronged effort. Sheehan admits that there is no “silver bullet” in closing the workforce gap in social work. Other efforts have included virtual job fairs that connect CMHs to candidates and efforts by CMHA, NASW-Michigan, and the Deans and Directors of Graduate Schools of Social Work seeking a new practice-based alternative to current test-based licensure. These efforts will improve the ability of the state’s behavioral health care systems to recruit and retain talent. The goal also is to bring in greater numbers of people with higher educational backgrounds, proven social work practice competence, and diverse backgrounds to help increase the number of clinically-skilled licensed social workers.

Michigan requires the highest number of clinical hours  — 4,000 hours or about 36 months — before taking the licensure exam. However, Sheehan says that observation of real clinical practice will indicate if someone is good at social work or not. 

Several Michigan colleges and universities offer an advanced standing program in social work, which shortens the timeframe for earning an MSW. However, Sheehan notes the program is intense and often means the candidate is unable to work a needed paying job.

This summer, the state is expected to announce a stipend program of $30,000 for a person to leave their job and to take an advanced standing program. In return, the person would be required to work in the public sector for two years. The goal, Sheehan says, is to encourage those who have left the field to come back, get their graduate degree, and find fulfilling careers in social work. 

Sheehan says, "If you want to change the world, if you want to improve people’s lives, this is a great field to go into.”

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma has 30-plus years of writing experience having served as a reporter and editor for several West Michigan publications, covering a variety of topics from local news to arts and entertainment. 

Photos by Doug Coombe.
Photo of Wil Morris by Liz Frendendal. 
Photo of Josh Williams courtesy subject.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationLifeWaysMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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