Increasing employability of graduates with master of social work degrees

Father and young son talking with a female social worker

The School of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), is launching an online master of social work (MSW) degree program in the fall of 2016. Dr. Goutham Menon, the director of the School of Social Work and the vice president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Graduate Schools of Social Work, recently shared his insights on how the social work profession is evolving and how schools like UNR are increasing their students’ employability.


Q. How has the social work profession changed since your first job in the field?    

Goutham Menon

Goutham Menon

Dr. Menon: A lot of the things we used to do in the past were not empirically based. It was what we used to call practice wisdom. Practice wisdom is good in the sense that you would hear from other practitioners at conferences, “I tried this particular method, and it worked,” but there were few studies done to make sure that all the factors were controlled, and that the treatment really worked.  

Now the field of social work has moved to where we have evidence-based practices in much of what we do. Almost all schools of social work have adopted this model, and it is an accreditation requirement that we impart evidence-based treatment modalities in our curriculum.

Another thing that has changed is that nonprofit agencies are becoming more entrepreneurial because funding from the state and federal government has become so difficult to get. Earlier on, we used to depend a lot on that funding, but now you need to creatively raise funds and have job-related types of opportunities. For example, a homeless shelter might start a bakery, utilizing their clients to work in the kitchen.

There is now a holistic approach to social problems, which I think has been a very positive change

Q. How do you teach the holistic approach?

Dr. Menon: Our curriculum is what we call an advanced generalist curriculum. It teaches students the micro-level skills of working with individual families and groups and the therapeutic effects of that—how do you counsel them and how do you build rapport. But, at the same time, we also have a continuum in the curriculum where they are taught the macro piece of it—how to run and manage organizations, analyze social problems in communities, and advocate for social policy changes.

Social policies considered in Congress determine what becomes a law, which becomes a statute, which dictates what type of funding is going to come down to a small agency in a rural area. Everything has a continuum. So we expose our students to the entire framework of that continuum.

Q. What are the three most important skills that social worker need to be successful?  

Dr. Menon: First of all, they need to have a sense of mindfulness, a sense of purpose about why they are doing what they are doing and how they can help people. Whenever you ask students, “Why are you in social work?,” 99 percent of the time the answer will be “I like to help people.” Our role here is to change that framework and get them to think bigger, like “I would like to eradicate poverty.”

Another thing is that a lot of the work we do is emotional. We have these very personal connections with our clients. But social workers also need to have analytical skills to put some control over their emotions. They need to go by the facts in terms of how things are going to work out for this client or what is best for the client.

The third thing is that we need to encourage our students to have the ability to channel creativity. They have to be able to think outside the box and think on their feet. Some of the decisions they will need to make are very tough decisions.

Q. Why are leadership skills important in the social work field?   

Dr. Menon: Leadership is one of the central tenets we focus on in our advanced generalist curriculum. The main reason is that when you look at social work jobs, about 90 percent of the time an entry-level person will get a supervisory-level role within two years.

The progression within an agency is very fast because there is high turnover in areas like child welfare agencies or because individuals who started working in social work programs and agencies forty or fifty years ago are retiring in mass.

So opportunities for people coming into this field are fast paced. Their leadership skills need to be honed, and we provide them with various opportunities to lead small groups within their classrooms. We also have opportunities for them with multiple social work clubs. A lot of my faculty encourage students to take on these types of roles, and I think it bodes well for them once they get their jobs.  

Q. How is UNR helping to ensure that its students graduate job ready?

Dr. Menon: We work with our area nonprofits, hospitals, and other stakeholder groups. For example, one of my faculty, Dr. Rubin, is on the state management team of behavioral health, and she is in charge of workforce development.  Another faculty member, Dr. Albers is also on the state management team. Other faculty members play prominent roles in non-profits in the area.

We are very politically active that way and make sure we are in touch with the realities in the field. For example, a huge hospital here has around thirty to forty BSW social workers who will need master of social work degrees. We have agreed to develop a couple of health-related and medical social work electives so that those people can have a career pathway within their own organization.   

We do not believe that our role ends when students are enrolled in our master of social work program. We work very hard to change systems to ensure our students get jobs when they graduate.

Q. What prompted UNR to launch an online master of social work program this fall?

Dr. Menon:  Eighty percent of Nevada is rural, and the students in those communities don’t have an option to get a Master’s degree in social work. We would like to have a program where we can keep these individuals in their communities with good-paying jobs and help the communities.

My initial proposal was for a self-funded, small online program just for rural Nevada. But it took on a life of its own when the provost got involved. We have a good online offering unit, but it did not have the capacity to support what we needed. The majority of our faculty have not taught online, so there’s going to be a lot of hand-holding as they go along.

I had the opportunity to look at what other schools of social work were doing, and the University of New England was with Pearson. I heard very good things about the help Pearson gave them with regard to instructional design, marketing, and recruitment.

To learn more about how UNR is working in partnership with Pearson Embanet to launch an online master of social work program, read the success story.