By: Jan Ligon
Spring 1995, Vol. 2, No. 1
Myths of the Public Sector
by Jan Ligon, LCSW, ACSW
Many social workers either ignore the public sector market or are not aware of the advantages and opportunities that are available. Addressing some common misconceptions about pursuing employment in the public domain may be helpful to the social work student and recent graduates seeking employment.
Finding a job is complicated--it's the government. In my home state of Georgia, positions are accessed through a computerized system. Applicants simply complete a single form, the application is assigned a rating value, and the worker is ready to compete for the positions and geographic areas of the state that are most desirable to them. Announcements of job openings are mailed to them, and they then arrange traditional interviews for positions they wish to pursue.
There aren't any jobs in my area of interest. Those new to social work are often surprised to discover that the public sector offers opportunities in a broad range of positions and settings. These include family and children's services, mental health, substance abuse, mental retardation, corrections, and many others. Workers may provide services to children, adults, adolescents, couples, and families from diverse backgrounds. They may also move into administrative positions.
Pay and benefits are poor compared to the private sector. Pay levels and benefits will certainly vary by area but are often found to be competitive to private employers. Benefits, for example, are a strong feature in Georgia and include three weeks of vacation as well as three weeks of sick leave each year.
I'll get stuck in the public system and never get out. Many workers find public sector careers to be rewarding, remain in the system, and often move into more advanced or administrative positions. Some social workers retain jobs in the public sector and work part-time in private practice or other endeavors. Others find that having public experience offers a competitive edge in the job market, including the private sector.
All I'll do is push paper; I won't get any real experience. This has not proven to be true in the positions I have held in mental health and medical social work. Workers often receive supervision from experienced colleagues, enjoy training and continuing education opportunities, and develop a solid base of experience from which to build a career in social work. Most social work positions--in the public or private sector--require some paperwork. The amount depends on the position.
The people doing the hiring don't even care if you're a social worker or not. I recently interviewed John Townsend, a state recruiter for twenty years in Georgia, who stated, "There is a real difficulty in recruiting and filling many positions with qualified candidates, and there are some excellent opportunities to get both good experience and promotions." It is common, particularly outside metropolitan areas, for jobs to be filled by persons without a social work education. This is not because the hirers don't want professionally trained social workers. Rather, it is because of the lack of social work applicants. Social workers who are willing to work in rural areas have a good chance of getting hired to fill positions that would otherwise go to non-social workers.
Besides the potential for training in various settings, new workers may be attracted to the chance to work with diverse clients and mutli-disciplinary treatment teams, and to obtain firsthand exposure to the service delivery system. Despite its inevitable flaws, the public system offers the new social worker immense opportunities at the local, state, and federal levels to help those most in need, while gaining invaluable experience in a traditional and important domain for our work.
Jan Ligon, LCSW, ACSW, is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia School of Social Work, Athens, GA.