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Supervising the Mid-career Switchers

For some social workers, this profession is not their first career upon graduation. As a teaching associate for a local university, I have met many who have made the decision to switch to do social work after building careers in other fields - like banking, insurance, real estate, to name a few.

Switching to More Meaningful Work

Most of them spoke about wanting to do more meaningful work; to make a difference in the lives of the marginalised, the poor, and the ones in need. They have made this choice knowing that it will be challenging. Yet, I wonder how prepared they really are for the challenges ahead? The difference they want to see in their clients' lives might only happen after years of intervention and dealing with crisis after crisis. For some, the change that happened could only be sustained for a short time, to regress and require another round of intervention; and the cycle continues to even the next generation of clients within the family system.

Would the mid-career switchers have enough resilience to sustain their interest in doing this work or would they begin to realize that their altruistic desire to go into social work is merely a fool's dream, leading to burnout and leaving the profession?

Switchers Need the Steady Hands of Social Work Supervisors

Some of these workers would also come to realize the reality of systemic and structural barriers that they would be up against when trying to find solutions with their clients. Without the steady hand of an experienced supervisor to guide them in this journey, social workers who are mid-career switchers would begin to wonder if fighting the system is what they have signed up for. Some may question the rationale and utility of certain organisational policies that might be a hindrance to clients receiving services. Others may question the efficacy of processes ( like the need for requesting and collecting evidentiary documents ) that delay help from reaching the clients.

As supervisors, we play a big part in pacing the new-not-so-new workers into the profession. Mid-career switchers may come in as junior social workers in need of guidance with their clinical work but they cannot be treated as totally inexperienced young graduates. Mid-career switchers would have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and skills albeit from a career unrelated to social services. They could be novices in the realm of social work, but experts in networking, negotiating, fundraising, and rallying community support. We cannot disregard the wisdom that they bring with them from their previous work.

Switchers May Bring Values into the Profession

Yet, therein lies the challenge. Mid-career switchers need to acknowledge that together with experience, they would also bring along a particular worldview or paradigm from their previous career that might not align with the values of social work. For instance, a social worker who was previously a teacher might resort to 'telling and teaching' clients to quickly resolve problems instead of allowing them the time and space to discover their own strengths in managing their situation.

Indeed, supervisors might have to challenge previously held beliefs and encourage self-reflection to enable mid-career switchers to recalibrate their practice according to social work principles. Supervisors might encounter workers who rigidly hold on to beliefs that are detrimental to the client-worker relationship. This could be exasperating for the supervisors; and even more frustrating, for the workers who have to unlearn and relearn what they had previously thought was the right thing to do. The learning will have to continue with each new case.

Switchers Also Bring Value to the Social Work Profession

Additionally, mid-career switchers could have held leadership or supervisory positions in their previous careers, which adds to their significance. Supervisors need to be mindful that in carrying their administrative, educational, and support functions, the supervisor-supervisee relationship with mid-career switchers should take into account their previous roles and give due respect accordingly. While supervisors should highlight areas for improvements when found wanting, the conversation should focus more on the worker's growth and development instead of harping on corrective actions.

Mid-career switchers can pose a different set of challenges to their supervisors, but with proper guidance and supervision, they can be an asset to social service organisations and the social work profession.

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