I looked up at my colleague.
What?! You’re leaving?
I thought you switched into this industry?
He gave a pained smile.
Yes, but I’ve decided to go back into church work, to plan programmes and work with people with intellectual disabilities.
If you’re considering a switch into social work, know this.
It’s not going to be easy.
Very often when I see new entrants into the social work sector, I would ask them,
So why did you join?
The answer tends to be some mix of:
- I wanted to do something meaningful.
- I wanted to journey with people.
I’m going to burst your bubble today.
Think about the money first
If you are switching into social work from the corporate sector, you might have grown burnt and tired out of chasing money.
You may take a massive pay-cut to join the sector. You need to be sure that you can support your family on that entry level pay.
Often people ignore this as a ‘pay-back’ for the money they did earn in their previous jobs.
If you were rolling in millions from your previous Goldman Sachs private banking job, sure, go ahead.
But if you’re switching into the social worker position from an average salary previously, beware.
What did help me was that I was invested into things like the Nikko AM REIT Exchange Traded Fund, which gave me a regular dividend. I also had a dividend inflow of about $2400 per year. All of this made it much much easier.
We tend to underestimate just how much money means to us, even in a meaningful job.
I will be the first to confess that I once told myself,
It’s not about the money.
But after weekly (and regular) home visits at 9pm, returning home at 1020pm, and then having to go back into the emotions of pained clients, it got too much at the $3690 I was earning.
Mind you, this was already on the upper end of what my colleagues were earning.
In 2021, I had more experienced colleagues whose pays were closer to $3500.
My first advice is that you
- Think of how much you need to live comfortably
- Look at how much savings you have
- And match that with the expected salary you will draw.
It may be worse if you’re coming in as a social work associate, doing a part time degree with the Singapore University of Social Sciences. You may end up earning $2470 per month, whatever your previous experience was.
You may not be doing therapeutic work
One thing that often catches mid-career switchers by surprise is how little therapeutic work there is.
The classic social work advertisement is often that of a social worker listening to the client, and offering advice.
Honestly, it won’t be like this.
Out of the 32 clients I worked with, only 2 were there for counselling.
Most were there for issues related to:
- Housing, where the scope of work often involves
- You writing a social report to the Housing Development Board, and trying to explain why your client needs a rental flat
- Chasing HDB with emails
- Financial assistance
- Trying to find available financial assistance for the client
- Writing to the HDB regarding the sale of the flat
- Settling the divorce papers
- Finding low bono lawyers and helping the client through the process
Your ‘therapeutic’ work is more a process of:
- Gathering information, asking the client what happened in the past
- Bringing the client for their appointments with the doctors, with the pro bono lawyers
- Reminding clients about their upcoming appointments
- Finding the client (please don’t laugh, some involuntary clients may be uncontactable and very hard to reach).
If you’re more keen on therapeutic work where you’re counselling the client, reframing their problems, you may need a Masters in Counselling, and to work in specialist counselling agencies such as Care and Counselling Centre, or Care Corner’s Counselling Centre.
You won’t necessarily have better colleagues
I was surprised.
You would have thought that a ‘purposeful’ job like social work would have nicer colleagues.
You would see people with the same faults, because we are all humans.
Compared to other corporate settings I worked in, the people in social work showed the same behaviors, such as complaining behind your back to bosses, and publicly shaming you.
From our experiences hearing those who’ve worked bigger, and organisations with great cultures, like Care Corner, we’ve also heard stories of how there are difficult people to work with.
It depends on the teams you work with.
But if you’re starting out, here’s what we’d suggest to help you become the most successful in your transition.
Find bigger agencies that are aligned to your cause
You may already know that you’d like to work with youths. If so, then look for those that are youth-centric. But it’s not just any youth agency.
Those that tend to be bigger are better.
Not because they are rich, but because they have processes in place to onboard you and help you to transit.
In my first agency, which was an agency with a single Family Service Centre, I was greeted by the director, had a introductory session with my supervisor to determine frequency of supervision, and was then left to my own devices.
For the rest of the next 3 months, I was asked to follow people around their sessions or during the intake session.
It sounds great, until you realise that these sessions don’t really help you to see where you’re lacking, and where you need to grow.
For example, in the U.K., the first year is called the ASYE. The newly qualified have 0.5 days out per week to reflect and do assignments.
Every few weeks, they would have a session where they would come together for a teaching session.
There would also be the competency framework whereby they would grade you against. Whilst seemingly rigid, it helped you see where you were failing, and how to improve.
This may not be present in Singapore, but there are organisations that have good initiatives to help you transit better.
Care Corner is one of them.
For example, during COVID, Care Corner, had a Care Bears initiative whereby they would encourage colleagues (that weren’t necessarily in the same department) with small gifts of appreciation.
Initiatives and policies like that can help you to keep going when the going gets tough.
One way to find this out is to search for ‘Agency Name + Annual Report’ on Google and figure out their annual revenues.
If it is above $10 million, you’re in good company.
If you don’t know your cause, then look for the generalist Family Service Centre
The Family Service Centre can be a good place to find fit, especially if you’re not sure where your strengths lie.
With cases that go across the spectrum of people, from family, to youth, to the disabled, across the spectrum of needs such as mental health, financial assistance, housing, you would have time to learn many different things.
It is vital though that you take time to realise that it’s not just a case of trying many different things so you can find your specialty.
But perhaps, your specialty is generalisation and range, in dealing with many different things rather than just the one thing.
Build additional wings to boost your career
What ultimately helped me was that I was doing other things such as going for train the trainer courses, such as the Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance (ACLP).
I also was deeply interested in Organisational Development, and went for courses such as those by Tong Yee.
What ultimately helped was that I had a wide range of interests outside of social work, which made it easier to think of how to have an interesting career.
You can too, if you want.
Should you do it?
Switching your career to social work is indeed a noble cause, but here’s the thing.
It may not solve your root feelings of disillusionment, disappointment, and despair around work.
Work long enough in social work, and you would see the 1% of the population, suffering from great needs daily. It’s enough to make many burn out.
Will it do the same to you?
Of those I’ve seen last longer in the field, are those who are able to treat social work, ironically, as a job. You realise you can’t change the way policies disadvantage those that have less, or allow people to fall through the gaps.
The social workers who last are those who realise they can’t change the world but they can do enough to just push someone along, a degree away from an arc of destruction.