Tuesday 26 January 2016

More social workers, more help for needy

Number doubled to 1,600 in last 4 years as profession gets more recognition
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2016

Singapore's vulnerable and needy residents have more helping hands available to them than ever.

Over the last four years, the number of registered social workers here has doubled to 1,600. This means that there are 29 for every 100,000 people, according to latest figures by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

While their numbers are still low - the United States has at least three times as many - observers say the growth in the profession is the result of several key milestones that took place in the last five to seven years.

"Social work is getting more recognition from the Government and the society," said Associate Professor Seng Boon Kheng, head of the social work programme at SIM University (UniSIM).

"Much effort had been put in by the ministry to promote the profession with improvement of salary structure, career development and training opportunities."

Ms Agnes Chia, president of the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW), added: "The growth of the profession did not happen by chance. Over the years, much has been done to raise the standards of social workers, promote the image of the profession and give workers a clearer view of their career progression paths."

For instance, a national career road map was launched two months ago. It is one of the most significant moves to professionalise the sector and gives social workers a guide to upgrade skills to advance in their jobs and earn more.

Misconceptions that social workers are unpaid volunteers persist although the profession has a history stretching more than six decades. When pay rises for the sector were announced last year, the move showed that social work is a skilled job which deserves good remuneration.

Social workers and other social service professionals, such as psychologists and therapists, were given a pay rise of 3 to 19 per cent.

Director of social welfare at the MSF Ang Bee Lian believes there is a renewed interest in the career.

"The younger generation are now able to pursue social work with their parents' blessings," she said. "In the past, parents would talk their children out of such options because it is not a lucrative industry and they perceive that one can do it whenever one is free or by just volunteering."

Yet, to meet the needs of an ageing population, about 90 more social workers are needed a year. Universities here have made plans to cater to the demand.

For instance, UniSIM will offer a Bachelor of Social Work degree from this year.

A growing awareness of social work will hopefully bring about ways to "re-distribute resources and boost access to services, promoting equality", said Ms Chia.

'There's no job like social work'
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2016

When she was a 19-year-old student, Ms Marian Lee decided to join a social work orientation camp. It was a decision that would map out her career.

The camp took her to places that showed a different side to the Singapore she thought she knew.

For instance, she saw four to five people crammed into one- or two-room rental flats.

"The rental flats in Bukit Ho Swee were dark, gloomy and stuffy and I knew then that I wanted to help people, but in an informed way so that the whole system can be improved," said Ms Lee, 25, who is now a medical social worker at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

Her job involves arranging financial assistance and making care arrangements for patients after they are discharged. She also works with patients who have lost their mental capacity due to stroke or dementia and do not have family members to manage their affairs.

"It is very satisfying work to help these patients because, when they come in, they are already in a vulnerable position due to illness, yet they still have to navigate the system and many of them are at a loss as to what to do," said Ms Lee.

Her extended family was surprised when she chose this profession because they equated social work with volunteer work which meant little or no pay.

"But to me, there is no job like social work that will enable one to build relationships with people to effect change," said Ms Lee.

Mr Chua Yi Heng, 37, made the same choice to become a medical social worker after working as a paramedic in the civil defence force for 12 years.

Though he no longer handles emergencies such as people having heart attacks or getting involved in road accidents, he finds his work at St Andrew's Community Hospital equally challenging and rewarding.

"There is something new to learn every day because psycho-social problems can be complex and I enjoy that continuous learning," he said.

The pay cut he would have to take did not deter him from entering the field.

"The intrinsic reward of doing work that is meaningful by helping people directly was more important to me," he said.

He quit his job four years ago and went to get a taste of social work by running activities for adults with intellectual disabilities at the Association for Persons with Special Needs.

After that, he went back to school to get a graduate diploma in social work via the professional conversion programme, the main scheme for mid-career entrants.

Upon graduating last October, he was hired by St Andrew's as a medical social worker. "I have no regrets about making the switch," he said.

Rolling out initiatives to build a vibrant social service sector

We thank Mr Lim Khoon Min ("Challenges of working in the charity sector", Jan 9) and Mr Edmund Khoo Kim Hock ("Ways charities can tackle funding squeeze", Jan 12) for their feedback.

Voluntary welfare organisations (VWO) are working to align their salary scales to the National Council of Social Service's (NCSS) guidelines announced in April last year, which is an encouraging step forward.

While salary is one of the ways to attract and retain capable people in the sector, we also recognise it is not the sole driver. A vibrant social service sector is a sum of many parts, including having the right people on the ground and dynamic leaders guiding the organisations to grow more sustainably.

NCSS is actively rolling out initiatives to build the sector's capabilities. VWOs and other non-profit organisations (NPO) in the sector can tap various types of support available to build organisational development, leadership, manpower and skills.

For example, the Social Service Institute (SSI), the human capital development arm of NCSS, has developed structured career and training pathways for sector professionals. It holds over 200 courses annually, some of which are subsidised through the VWOs-Charities Capability Fund (VCF).

The VCF supports initiatives to build professional and organisational capabilities, as well as pursue innovation and productivity efforts.

VWO and NPO board members can also benefit from specialised programmes offered at SSI, which have attracted more than 200 board directors since these programmes started in October last year.

In complementing efforts to build quality manpower, the Sun Ray scheme was launched in November 2014 to develop a pool of individuals who are groomed for leadership roles in the social service sector.

We are encouraged by the strong interest from potential candidates and will continue to recruit, retain, develop and deploy suitable sector professionals and new entrants to serve the vulnerable populations in our community.

NCSS also works closely with other bodies, including the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, to support VWOs and NPOs in other areas, including attracting more volunteers to complement the roles of full-time professionals and staff.

We welcome ideas on how we can work with VWOs and NPOs to bolster their capability to serve the people in our community.

Sim Gim Guan
Chief Executive Officer
National Council of Social Service
ST Forum, 25 Jan 2016

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