Social work is a vital pillar in our community. By promoting social justice, fostering stronger relationships, and providing compassionate service to others, it improves the lives of those who need it the most and creates a more inclusive and caring society.
While this sector has always faced various challenges, one issue poses a larger worry than others. That of a labour crunch. One that the government has acknowledged and hopes to alleviate through technological initiatives, committing S$20 million from the National Productivity Fund for companies to invest in productivity.
In the face of growing demand for social services, and as an industry relying significantly on passionate volunteers, the youth can be a solution as well. Recruiting young millennials and members of Gen Z however, is not such a straightforward task. Organisations have had to adopt different strategies to reach out.
In this article, we explore the challenges the social sector faces when it comes to recruiting the youth, the strategies they have employed, and how things are moving in the right direction.
Challenge 1: A Different School of Thought
The youth of today possess very different mindsets and attitudes. With the Web an ever-present in their lives, they have grown up with unrivalled access to information, and learned to question everything a little more. Applied to the social work context, this has led to youths desiring to see the bigger picture first. They want to know who they are helping, why they are doing it, and see proof that they can truly effect proper systemic change.
Additionally, Gen Z’s rampant digital consumption has also resulted in shorter attention spans. This could pose a challenge when they engage in tedious and time-consuming tasks in social work.
Challenge 2: Not All a Bed of Roses
The challenging nature of social work poses a difficulty as well, resulting in high turnover rates for volunteers.
These volunteers, however passionate, are often not privy to the actual amount of work and mental fortitude required, until they experience it for themselves. Social work can be draining, such as when it comes to caring for mentally-challenged seniors. And many quit when they encounter bad experiences or feel disheartened and burned out. While the nature of the work cannot be changed, the resources to help one better cope with it can be.
Challenge 3: A Full-Time Problem
Salary expectations, alongside misguided perceptions of the social service industry, have given rise to low full-time application rates.
For full-timers, a job in the social sector may be seen as not financially rewarding, in addition to being demanding. Also, the lack of awareness of social work as a career gives it an unfair reputation.
Addressing the Concerns
Many strategies can and have been employed to address these issues.
Social organisations have to rethink the way they initiate and execute various projects. From the get-go, organisational leaders should set clear goals, and plan the different steps to attain these targets. This applies when they teach as well, as there is potentially no return once attention is lost. When young workers are fully engaged, there will be no second-guessing as to why they are doing something or what the outcome should be.
However, it is important to also keep in mind that when it comes to garnering and maintaining the interest of youths, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Organisational leaders thus have to constantly adapt, and to keep interacting and involving the young workers in the process.
To manage the high turnover rates, organisations are now providing volunteering or internship opportunities with their beneficiaries. There are even traineeships and mentorships to help give potential joiners a taste of the sector before they commit. At Campus Psy, a non-profit organisation promoting mental health awareness among youths, newcomers are only allowed to officially join after going through weekly volunteering sessions for half a year.
More resources have also been invested into the welfare of social workers to help them handle the gruelling nature of their jobs. That is why organisations are now including self-care as part of their formative training. Initiatives range from workshops on maintaining healthy sleep hygiene, to the establishment of a supportive community of family and friends. It may sound elementary on paper, but it is vital to put these into practice.
With regards to salary discrepancies, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, during his time as the Minister for Social and Family Development, acknowledged the need for social service organisations to provide competitive salaries. Since then, salaries have increased in tandem with guidelines from the National Council of Social Service,.
Education can play a big part in raising awareness of a career in the social sector and debunk the myths surrounding it. The government has done so via public education campaigns, and a wealth of information exists on sites such as that of the National Council of Social Service.
A career in the social sector is rewarding. It is an industry that engages in community, rather than competition. And it has the power to change the world. These are facts that the youth are gradually appreciating, as a result of the progressive changes made. And with more measures abound, the future of the social sector looks bright.
This article is an adaption of the podcast Silver Linings #1.2: Social Work x Youths, featuring Dr Grace Chee, Senior Lecturer of Social Work Programme at SUSS S R Nathan School of Human Development, Lionel Dorai (CEO, FutuReady Asia) and Cho Ming Xiu (Founder, Campus Psy).
The Straits Times (JUL 2019) Tapping tech to ease labour crunch in social service sector
 TODAY (APR 2017) Slew of initiatives to attract, retain talent in social service sector
 The Straits Times (APR 2018) Social service staff to get another pay rise, with monthly salary for social workers starting at $3,400
 National Council of Social Service Salary Guidelines for Social Service Sector (with effect from April 2020)