Pay and passion in social work

SINGAPORE - It is heartening that the call to pay social service professionals competitively is coming more from the Government than from practitioners themselves. Reaffirming the commitment to raise their wages, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has underscored the need to recognise their contributions.

While it is not so much pay but passion that drives many to serve people in difficult or vulnerable circumstances, if not closed substantially and soon, the pay gap between this and other sectors will not only remain inherently unfair but also become an increasing drag on recruitment.

The country needs more social service workers and demands more from them. The fast ageing population comes with health, emotional, financial and other care problems requiring their expertise.

Low-income families that have not done as well as others need their guidance and encouragement.

Drug offenders and others who fall afoul of the law need their intervention to turn over a new leaf. Social work practitioners have to meet many complex challenges.

Not surprisingly, the Government finds them indispensable to helping it implement its policy shift towards giving the less well-off a bigger helping hand.

So, last year it did the right thing in letting salaries match those in the teaching and civil service within a year or two.

More than 85 per cent of voluntary welfare organisations have followed its example and raised staff wages by the 8 per cent median target set then. 

Similarly, social workers deserve the higher pay increase target of 15 per cent.

The basic wage of such professionals stood at $3,003 a month last year, hardly adequate compensation for the knowledge and skills they offer and the risks they take.

It has to continue rising to make the profession more attractive. About 150 vacancies go unfilled every year, a significant shortfall considering that there are 1,400 accredited professionals.

Money alone, nevertheless, will not draw enough new entrants. As Mr Tharman pointed out, ways must also be found to recruit, manage and develop social service talent.

Much has been done to widen pathways to the profession: After O or A levels, students can proceed to a diploma course at the polytechnic level or a degree course at the university and up to a graduate diploma or master's in social work.

Professional development opportunities have also been enhanced, most recently with the opening of the Social Service Institute.

So, pay is only part of the holistic approach that social work professionals so favour in problem-solving. But, even for those whose passion alone suffices to help others, it is an important part.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.