Awkward occupation

By Shaq Lee

Shanghai Star. 2005-01-13

WHEN Wang Qun enrolled at Fudan University, he chose social work as his major. But now, as he prepares to graduate, Wang does not plan to work in the field in which he has specialized for four years.

"I did not find a social work position that suited me. I wondered if I could survive on a wage of 1,000 yuan (US$120) a month," said Wang, a Shanghai native. "Therefore, I chose to work for a foreign law firm instead." Wang's story is not unusual; most of his classmates share the same predicament.

According to the Shanghai Social Work Association (SSWA), only 30 out of 150 social work majors in college chose to pursue social work as a career in 2004.

In Shanghai, there are an estimated 10,000 social workers providing assistance and services in hospitals, schools and residential areas. But the need for new social workers is growing quickly.

"Shanghai will need over

20,000 social workers in the next three years. The number will grow larger with the city becoming a 'grey' (aged) society," said Wu Duo, a sociology expert from East China Normal University. Finding such a number of qualified and eager workers will be an uphill battle, he said.

"Social work is a new career that is not well-known to Chinese people. Social workers do not get the respect they deserve now," said Wu. "It will take a long time for it to become a mature career which is recognized by both government and society. Ignorance about the career, meagre wages and a lack of qualified social workers have impeded the development of the field, although social workers are badly needed."

Although four universities in Shanghai - Fudan University, East China Normal University, Shanghai Normal University and the Shanghai Youth Administration and Management Institute - offer social work as a major, last year there was a drop in the number of people applying for the social work qualification test. In 2004, 3,670 people applied for the test, compared with 5,586 in 2003, according to SSWA.

"In 2003, people rushed for the test because it was a new and promising career. But in 2004, they quit because of the low pay and poor working conditions," said Huang Zhihua, an SSWA official. "In Hong Kong, a social worker is a respected position with good pay, but in Shanghai, it is regarded as a menial job done by laid-off workers."

As a social worker, Zhang Jiaping spends most of her time with young jobless drop-outs on Zhoujiadu Street in Shanghai's Pudong District. She says her work is vital and challenging, and she hopes to help at-risk youngsters avoid misery, violence and lives of crime. In general, social workers strive to provide services, especially to the disadvantaged in society, such as psychological counselling, career guidance and other assistance.

Social demand

"As a social worker, you should be compassionate, patient, persuasive and have a lot of energy," said Zhang. Indeed, the job isn't an easy one. "The first thing is to get people's trust. That takes a long time. They may be hostile. A rushed visit or contact will offend them," she explained. "It is better to have a clear knowledge of a young person - his habits, hobbies and personality, his friends. We often turn to their family members, schools and friends for help."

A social worker often has several clients and many more under supervision. In Pudong, every social worker monitors 150 youngsters with problems. In the more populated areas of Shanghai, such as the Xuhui and Luwan districts, the number will be larger.

Zhang usually works alone, but team-work is also important in social work, sometimes for safety reasons.

"It is better to have another colleague by your side when you visit a client at night," said Zhang.

Since 2003, Shanghai's network of social workers has hugely swollen with help from the government.

"As the city continues to undergo rapid economic development, social problems - such as unemployment, the ageing of citizens and rising levels of crime - have become a major concern, giving rise to an urgent need for a large number of social workers with proper professional skills," said Ye Xinhua, deputy director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Administration.

According to Gu Donghui, a sociology professor from Fudan University, this is why the government is playing an important role in trying to build social work into an acceptable career. "It is the government that is pushing forward the development of social work," Gu said.

Funding shortage

The administration has built hundreds of social work offices in the residential areas in the Xuhui, Luwan and Yangpu districts, and social work has absorbed hundreds of teachers, police officers and new graduates in the absence of qualified social workers.

The ongoing social work falls mainly into three categories: anti-drug work, reform of juvenile delinquents and assistance to troublesome youths.

The anti-drug work consists mainly of helping tobacco users to quit the habit and providing support and encouragement to enable them to begin to live a new life. The other two fields focus on criminal activities and on youngsters having trouble in school.

Social workers currently are qualified after training for three to six months, but experts worry that the training is inadequate.

"We have produced so many social workers overnight. I worry the government will take social workers too much for granted as it tries to build up the profession," said Wu from East China Normal University. "It is sometimes regarded as a channel through which to employ laid-off workers."

Because most social work organizations have strong governmental backgrounds, social workers are regarded as government officials even though they actually work for private NGOs. This confusion even extends to many social workers themselves, said Gu from Fudan University.

"We need to develop non-governmental social work organizations," said Wu. "Those organizations should take the major responsibility for social workers."

There are fewer than 10 social work organizations - all of them privately run - in Pudong. The largest one has fewer than 50 social workers.

"The development of these organizations is being retarded by a lack of funds," said Wu, who is also the founder of the Lequn Social Work Centre, one of earliest social work NGOs in China. Adding to the confusing situation, the government provides funding to social work organizations by paying for their services to its citizens - but experts say the money is still hard to come by.

Lequn was nearly shut down because of insufficient government help. Because of the money shortage, most social workers do not have their own offices, instead borrowing space at local government departments or other NGOs.

Shen Limin, director of Lequn, described the organization as stumbling forward.

"We have to cut down on our employees when the government reduces its expenditure," said Shen. "An alternative is to reduce salaries."

Copyright by Shanghai Star.