Why Do We Continue to Push This Limited View of Social Work?



For the entire month of October, I am working to actively uncover and eliminate limiting beliefs that are weighing me down as I pursue my next level in my career. Today I am discussing two of the limited views of my chosen career field – social work.

  1. Social workers don’t need to be paid well.
  2. Social work is all clinical work.

Social work is complicated, complex, and rewarding – but it is not a hobby. If you work a job you should be paid for your job according to the value that you provide and your credentials. The phrase, “in it for the outcome, not the income”, is so prevalent in social work you can purchase it on a t-shirt. That thinking shows how we devalue ourselves and our worth as professionals. I fell into that unfortunate trap in my career as well. It’s time to change the narrative. I’m in it for the outcome and the income. There is no reason to struggle financially or work multiple jobs to live comfortably when you have a master’s degree. Point blank and period.

I have been a part of and managed multi-disciplinary teams for over a decade and that is the reason that Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting serves women of color in social work and human services leadership. I use the broadest definition of human services which to me are professionals serving humanity. You’ve seen the job descriptions that say social work or related degree? Well, I work with women leaders in social work and those related degrees – counseling, psychology, sociology, human relations, juvenile justice, education, public health, and nonprofit management. We are all in the helping profession and face similar challenges and opportunities.

I love social work and there are distinct differences in our education that aren’t always evident in our daily work. What I am seeing today appears to be a mass exodus from the social work field and it is quite alarming. I believe part of the problem is that, despite the transferable skills we acquire, students and new professionals are taught to social work in only one way and this limited view of the profession makes social work less appealing. The field of social work includes macro, mezzo, and macro practice but social work schools and educators still pushing the very limited view that social work is just clinical. Social workers are utilizing their skills and excelling in positions such as Human Resources Managers, Higher Education Administrators, Lobbyists, Program Managers, and the list goes on and on. And students need to know that private (psychotherapy) practice is not the only way for social workers to become entrepreneurs.

On the Capella University blog (2018) they attempt to differentiate between social work and human services, but I was wrong. They started off strong and I thought we were on to something. “Human Services and Social Work are related fields that involve helping people through challenging life circumstances, whether in a crisis situation or for the long term. So, what distinguishes these fields from one another? In many cases, the differences have to do with the type of interaction and intervention each professional can offer.” Then things went downhill. “A human services professional (HSP) manages a homeless shelter and interacts with individuals and families on a daily basis. Daily interaction allows them to build trusting relationship with clients needing their help. A social worker would be responsible for assessing the client and then working with them to develop a treatment plan. The social worker would also implement the plan and evaluate its outcomes. Based on outcomes, the social worker would either end services (if goals are met) or change the treatment plan.” How can a university (that charges tuition) not explain that social workers can and often do the same job described as the work of a human services professional and that not all social workers provide clinical assessment and treatment?

A social work student in an online program reached out to me for help with a macro internship placement. She was very clear on the things she did not want to do, and I walked her through being as clear on what she wanted to do in her internship and after graduation. I provided not only a variety of agencies, but various service populations as well as coached her on how to market herself to the agencies and present her internship project ideas based on agency needs. The resistance she received was from her university which would not allow her to complete a macro placement for all or part of her first- or second-year placement. Forcing students to do clinical placements when they are clear that they want to do macro work has led to student burnout, confused social workers, macro jobs being filled by other professionals, and unprepared clinicians managing people and programs.

It’s time for social work to take their cues from the rest of the world and do a pandemic pivot!


Nicki Sanders, MSW, CEO, is a Career and Empowerment Strategist who helps high-performing women of color in management go from overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated to energized, well paid, and appreciated. Through Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting, she also helps businesses recruit, hire, train, and retain great employees. Nicki has an extensive background in developing and managing successful programs and leading high-functioning multi-disciplinary teams. She is an accomplished professor, coach, trainer, and group facilitator who has combined her gift for authentic relationships, Master of Social Work degree, and over 20 years of diverse work experience to create a life she loves. Nicki is a lover of cupcakes, travel, and 80’s hip hop and R&B music.

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