SOCIAL work as a profession emerged in the latter part of the 19th century when the pioneers of the profession sought to address the social problems of the day.

In Singapore, social work took up its position in the late 1940s when, as a British colony, it was a very different place from the modern city-state it is today.

The primary interest of social work has always been to address human suffering and human needs at both preventative and rehabilitative levels.

This is still the case today, especially in the face of the economic downturn and global financial crisis.

These are the "big issues", and you might ask what they have got to do with social work.

Social workers cannot solve crises of such magnitude. But while governments take on the role of policy-makers and determine the programme or policy response to the current crisis, social workers become the "human face" of that response.

A human face to crisis response

When governments roll out a particular measure or assistance package, it is often the social worker who meets individuals to assist them in their time of crisis.

These people are directly affected by job loss, unexpected financial burdens and just the sheer misery of finding their life situation suddenly changed by factors beyond their control.

In many instances, the people who could be facing additional problems due to the global economic crisis are likely to have lower skill levels and fewer possibilities for re-employment without skills upgrading.

It is the social worker who, in providing the human face, also serves as a bridge to possible solutions for these individuals and families.

Some families seek assistance at family service centres, while others may come through hospital emergency wards.

Some clients are children who face difficulties in school - a reflection and possibly a symptom of the child's response to the awareness that things at home have changed and are "not quite right". Problems at home can often alter the way a child behaves in school.

People skills and professional knowledge

Social workers are trained professionals with skills in responding to crises and the problems of day-to-day living.

Just as the pioneers set out to do, social workers in the contemporary context need to be responsive to contemporary problems.

This means that social workers need to have good people skills that allow engagement with a wide range of people facing diverse circumstances.

They also need to have a thorough understanding of contemporary social problems as well as knowledge of available programme responses and resources to help people to identify solutions to their problems.

For these reasons, it is not enough for social work students to only study methods of working directly with people.

They also need to study policy and research to fully equip themselves as professionals.

What is required is a commitment to lifelong learning.

It is not always easy to deal with all the problems that people present and, at times, some of these problems are seemingly insoluble.

Professional supervision helps to ensure that social workers are given the support they need to deliver high standards of service to clients and the community.

As part of the demand for high levels of professionalism here, Singapore has introduced accreditation for social workers.

Accreditation is another way that enables social workers to take pride in their profession. It also offers assurance to the community that social workers are prepared to be both well-trained and accountable.

The practice of social work has been made more complex by events that are occurring on a global scale that are affecting not only business enterprises but also individuals, families and communities.

That said, social workers are well positioned to offer a human and humane response.

The rewards that come from helping people are every bit as significant as the challenges that social work entails.