A volunteer may offer friendship and a listening ear to those in need, but he may not spot the underlying issues causing the person's problems. A social worker, on the other hand, is a professional trained to assess individuals, see how they operate in their family and social settings, spot behaviour and attitudes that may need changing, and guide them to change.
Social work is unique among the helping professions because it focuses on people's problems in the context of their social environment. It is about applying expert knowledge and skills to help people make the most of their own abilities.
To do social work in Singapore, you need at least a recognised degree awarded by the National University of Singapore, SIM University, Monash University (in partnership with the Social Service Training Institute) or an accredited foreign university.
Temasek, Singapore and Ngee Ann Polytechnics have also recently started new diploma courses related to social work in response to the demand for people to work in this sector.
Besides paper qualifications, it takes a person who is genuinely committed to improving the welfare of people and society, wants to help, and has the sensitivity, patience, perseverance and courage to work with people from all walks of life.
The scope of social work is very wide and encompasses working with families, individuals, organisations and the community in areas such as poverty, substance abuse, family life, people with special needs or disabilities, community work, counselling, rehabilitation and the elderly.
Social workers can also operate in specialised environments such as schools or hospitals. They may work too on the administrative side of things, in areas such as policy planning, management, research and education.
While a social worker is trained to tackle problems, he is not a superhero who can solve every problem. He should be idealistic, yet pragmatic in his approach. He is also bound by a body of knowledge and a code of ethics in his work.
Social work in Singapore
According to the National Council of Social Service, the social work community is a relatively small one, with about 600 workers in direct practice today. They work in the community, in family service centres, hospitals, prisons and institutional homes, the courts, schools, community development agencies and welfare agencies.
The need for their services has grown phenomenally, and will keep growing amidst an ageing population, rising divorce rates and the introduction of casinos, to name a few factors changing our society.
But the reality of social work is that it is a highly stressful job, and many people quit after a few years because of relatively low pay compared to other professions, burnout and emotional stress.
However, there are other intangible rewards that keep some at their jobs for years. These include the joy and satisfaction of having helped someone in need and knowing you made a difference in their lives.