Twenty graduate students this spring will become the first to graduate with a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Memphis.
Melinda Menser, director of clinical services for SRVS, and Joy Steorts, a University of Memphis Master in Social Work intern, work with Roger, a person supported by the local nonprofit SRVS.
(Photo: Lance Murphey )
But even before they walk across the stage, the students have already contributed to the programs of agencies where they most likely will work.
“Even in the midst of the recession I was counseling a student who had two job offers, whether to go home to take a job there or whether to take a job here in Memphis,” said Dr. Susan Neely-Barnes, coordinator of the Master of Social Work program for the university’s social work department. “We have really good success with students coming out of their internships getting hired.”
In the 2012-2013 year alone, undergraduate and master’s level social work students have contributed 53,000 of unpaid service hours to community agencies in and around Memphis. The hours illustrate the fast-growing pace of a very young program.
The University of Memphis started the program in 2011 in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, which decided to close its master’s program in Memphis due to budget restrictions.
UT made the decision to close in 2009 and did so in 2011 after the graduation of its last students.
“We ended up taking over the former UT program,” said Dr. Steven Soifer, social work department chair at the University of Memphis. “It was a rather delicate situation.”
It was also poorly timed considering growing demand for professionals in the field.
“Social work is one of the strongest growing professional fields in the country and there certainly is great need in the Memphis area for social workers both at the BA and the master’s level,” Soifer said.
Employment of social workers is expected to grow 25 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The master’s program at the University of Memphis is already the fastest growing master’s program at the university.
That’s largely due to an increase in the number of people seeking social services as a result of the economic recession and the aging Baby Boomer generation.
“When people lose their jobs and bills start piling up, it’s a terrible situation not only financially but emotionally,” Soifer said. “Social workers are there to help provide services to families and counseling support in those situations. And one of the fastest growing areas of social work is geriatric social work.”
Neely-Barnes said also that veterans returning from deployment in the Middle East face challenges returning to civilian life ranging from health care needs to employment.
“The various branches of the military have hired social workers including civilian social workers,” Neely-Barnes said. “We had a recruiter from the Air Force stop by recently wanting to recruit people to be enlisted social workers.”
Currently, 55 students are enrolled in the program and are required to do 960 hours of service in the field. Each is assigned to a community agency where they are supervised by a staff member who holds an MSW degree.
The students gain valuable experience working with populations of people whom they may have never encountered before.
“There’s not too many people familiar with working with people with disabilities,” said Melinda Menser, director of clinical services at SRVS, a nonprofit that provides residential treatment for people with physical and developmental disabilities.
“It’s about getting more people working in the field with people with disabilities. (These internships) have really opened it up. We’ve hired a lot of the students.”
Menser said her interns research agency policies, lead activities in group therapy, learn about advocacy issues and conduct a research project on a topic that is beneficial to SRVS.
“It’s not just case management,” Menser said. “I ask every student to interview the director of an agency. Maybe they didn’t think about being a residential director or a director of employment services, but the knowledge they gain in a social work program can affect that type of job.”
Neely-Barnes said that the median salary for social workers is just over $42,000. Some social work jobs are known to be more difficult than others, but she said that her graduates will have jobs after graduation even if they don’t get their first choice.
“I think most people once they have their MSW they are very employable,” Neely-Barnes said. “It may not be exactly the job they are looking for, but they get some kind of offer.”