Meeting the National Need for Master’s Level Social Workers Requires Innovative Programs

A guest post by Ken Berrick

 The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that social worker positions will rise nearly 20 percent by 2022. While much of this demand will be for geriatric social workers to meet the needs of aging baby boomers, new child and family social workers are urgently needed to address the effects of child poverty, family homelessness, parental addiction, and child abuse and neglect. For children and adolescents who witness or experience violence in their neighborhoods, schools and homes, social workers are often the first and only responders available to ease their suffering and ameliorate the long-term, deleterious impacts of multiple and repeated traumas.

In California, where one out of every four children lives in poverty, there is a critical need for more clinical social workers who are trained and experienced to effectively treat child traumatic stress and its lasting effects. In addition to master’s level social workers with strong clinical skills, California requires a mental health workforce that reflects the state’s increasing ethnic and cultural diversity. Bilingual and bicultural mental health professionals continue to be in very short supply, and the demand for services among immigrant and other cultural minority populations is significant and growing.

The dilemma facing Seneca and other nonprofit, mental health/social service providers is the fact that most high-quality Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are accessible only to young people who have both the extensive time (two years) and financial resources (tens of thousands of dollars) required to complete one of those programs. This burden undoubtedly serves to limit the pool of potential social workers and mental health professionals, often at the expense of a culturally and linguistically diverse workforce.

Three years ago, we began to explore an innovative solution to address this situation by approaching a number of social work graduate schools to discuss the possibility of bringing an MSW degree program inside a multiservice provider agency for the first time in the field. Each year, we hire hundreds of talented young adults, many of whom are individuals of color, to fill the bachelor’s level youth counselor positions in our school- and community-based mental health programs. Because many of these young people have already amassed substantial student debt and must financially support not only themselves but other family members, enrollment and completion of an MSW degree program is well beyond their reach.

Our idea, therefore, was to create MSW program opportunities where bachelor’s level staff could continue to earn their regular salary, plus receive significant financial aid, while they worked toward attaining a graduate degree in social work. These MSW programs would not only enhance the diversity, skills and expertise of our clinical staff, but encourage talented young adults to make a longer-term commitment to a social services career.

Through partnerships with the University of Southern California (USC), the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and any other accredited MSW program in which our staff are currently enrolled, Seneca now offers three options for its employees to obtain their Master of Social Work while earning either full-time wages and benefits or a stipend for field placement within a Seneca program.

The first option, developed in partnership with the USC School of Social Work, is the seven-semester Seneca MSW@USC program. This option enables our employees to earn a top-tier MSW using USC’s online learning platform, while they gain real-world social work experience in one of Seneca’s mental health programs. Seneca MSW@USC students continue to be paid as full-time employees while receiving substantial tuition assistance from both USC and Seneca. The program is also available on an advanced standing basis for individuals who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, but are not currently employed by Seneca. This accelerated, four-semester alternative enables students to complete their MSW in just 35 units (as opposed to the traditional 60 units), for a little over half the cost of a standard USC MSW degree.

The second option, developed in partnership with the UCB School of Social Welfare, enables staff who have been accepted by that school’s full-time MSW program to complete their field placements at Seneca. These Seneca employees will have the ability to earn current wages while completing their MSW field practicum, along with the opportunity to work additional paid hours and/or complete a summer fellowship at Seneca while earning UCB credits. Having the option for Independent Study credit will serve to help students complete their fieldwork at Seneca.

Finally, Seneca offers a third option for agency staff who are enrolled in another MSW program and may want to complete their fieldwork at Seneca. We work with any student/employee to advocate with their school to identify first- and second-year field placement opportunities in Seneca programs. For Bay Area and Central Coast students, Seneca stipends are available for first- and second-year field placements, along with competitive hourly wages for additional paid work in a Seneca program.

Not only do these options allow Seneca to recruit and retain social workers who reflect our diverse client populations, but they support dedicated practitioners who otherwise may not have the opportunity to reach their clinical and professional potential. All Seneca MSW student/employees receive extensive training and practice in the agency’s clinical practice model, Unconditional Care, which is designed to meet the service needs of children, youth and families who struggle with the most profound emotional, psychological and financial challenges. Training and intensive supervision in Unconditional Care, which applies attachment theory and learning theory within the context of culture and social ecology, enables MSW graduates to achieve a deeper and broader level of clinical expertise.

Going forward, we hope that all the options through partnerships with USC, UCB, and other Bay Area and Central Coast schools of social work will serve as a model for other institutions of higher learning to consider, or they may spur different innovative ideas from other nonprofit, mental health/social service providers for recruiting and retaining master’s level social workers during the coming decade.

Ken Berrick is Chief Executive Officer of Seneca Family of Agencies based in Oakland, California (

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