Meet the young, hip and caring workers

Social workers are back in vogue - but it pays to have experience of life if you want a job. By Tim Walker

There was a time, not so long ago, when the last thing on many a young person's mind would have been helping other people for a living. Social workers were thought of as poorly dressed, disorganised do-gooders interfering in others' lives. A lot has changed, says Jenni Spencer, a social- work service manager for policy and staff development in Camden. "The 1980s are long gone and people are after more than just money now," she says. "They've become more altruistic."

Social work's image has changed, too. "Social work has more status now," says Spencer. "It's a profession with qualifications and a register. So it's more prescribed, like medicine or the law. People see social workers in a different light."

Last summer, the first cohort of graduates emerged from the new three-year social-work degree. A Department of Health survey found that there was a 19 per cent increase in the number of students registered on social-work training courses between 2000 and 2004. Last year, the Government launched a social-work recruitment campaign with the aim of attracting more young people to the profession.

"The new three-year degree course will make a big difference," says Tim Aldridge, a social-work team manager in Camden. "When I did my Masters in social work, you had to be 23 or over with two or three years of previous experience before you could start studying for the qualification. That meant a lot of potential graduate social workers with real academic ability were missed."

Litisha Williams, 20, has been one beneficiary of the new system. She is in the second year of a social-work degree at the University of Central England in Birmingham, one of almost 70 universities now offering a social-work qualification.

"The majority of students on the degree are older people, mature students, but there are a lot of young people, too," she says. "I did a BTech National Diploma in care at college, before the degree. The age when you can begin social work has gone down to 18, and if it hadn't been available as an option when I left college (at 18), then I would've done something else instead."

Of course, social workers have to deal with many difficult situations, be it removing a child from an abusive or neglectful family, supporting young people struggling after leaving care, or helping people with disabilities or mental illness. On any given day, a social worker might have to liaise with the police, schools and the courts.

One of the most important qualifications they can have is a little life experience, something young graduates may not have in the same quantities as a career changer coming to social work. "There are pros and cons of both models," says Tim Aldridge. "Because older people obviously have more life experience and maturity to bring to the table."

As social workers are required to have a university degree (be it the three-year course, or a part-time or postgraduate version), and the courses themselves have a strong practical bias, much of the necessary experience comes with the qualification itself, whether the students are school leavers or career changers. Litisha Williams spent time working for the education welfare services in her first year, and will have two more similar placements over the two subsequent years of her course.

"Everybody has life experience," says Jenni Spencer. ""What you also need is a vocational desire to help people, and that is becoming more and more common." The statistics bear her out. According to a survey conducted by Ernst & Young, almost 90 per cent of recent graduates would prefer not to work for employers with poor ethical records, whatever the financial incentive.

Gideon Burrows is the editor of ethicalcareers.org, which produces The Ethical Careers Guide. "Interest in ethical careers is growing all the time," he says. "I think there are two reasons: first, there is the growth in communications, in the internet and so on. First-jobbers see the impact of their own everyday lives on other people around the world, and they feel that they can make a difference.

Secondly, because of issues such as climate change or, in the UK, the lack of adequate services for the elderly or disabled, there is a trend in people wanting to make things better and improve the lives of others. Social work is a very obviously ethical career."

If you want to find out more about social-work courses and careers, call 08456 046 404 or visit www.socialworkandcare.co.uk

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