SINGAPORE'S vulnerable and needy residents have more helping hands available to them than ever.
Over the last four years, the number of registered social workers here has doubled to 1,600. This means that there are 29 for every 100,000 people, according to latest figures from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
While their numbers are still low - the United States has at least three times as many - observers say the growth in the profession is the result of several key milestones that took place in the last five to seven years.
"Social work is getting more recognition from the Government and the society," said Seng Boon Keng, head of the social work programme at UniSIM.
"Much effort had been put in by the ministry to promote the profession with improvement of the salary structure, career development and training opportunities."
Agnes Chia, president of the Singapore Association of Social Workers, added: "The growth of the profession did not happen by chance. Over the years, much has been done to raise the standards of social workers, promote the image of the profession and give workers a clearer view of their career progression paths."
For instance, a national career road map was launched two months ago. It is one of the most significant moves to professionalise the sector so far and gives social workers a guide to upgrade their skills in order to advance in their jobs and earn more.
Misconceptions that social workers are unpaid volunteers persist although the profession has a history stretching more than six decades.
When pay rises for the sector were announced last year, the move also showed that social work is a skilled job which deserves good remuneration.
Social workers and other social service professionals, such as psychologists and therapists, were given a pay rise of 3 to 19 per cent.
Ang Bee Lian, director of social welfare at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, believes there is a renewed interest in the career.
"The younger generation are now able to pursue social work with their parents' blessings," she said.
"In the past, parents would talk their children out of such options because it is not a lucrative industry and they perceive that one can do it whenever one is free or by just volunteering."
Yet, to meet the needs of an ageing population, about 90 more social workers are needed each year.
Universities here have already made plans to cater to the demand.
For instance, UniSIM will offer a Bachelor of Social Work degree from this year.
Said Ms Chia: "A growth in social work awareness and its practice comes with a hope to bring about mechanisms to redistribute resources and boost access to services, hence promoting equality."
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