In October 2021, 7.4 million people were unemployed in the United States. For many, specific barriers keep them from finding and holding a well-paying job. Social workers are uniquely positioned to help those who are unemployed overcome these barriers. They use a variety of resources and intervention strategies to guide and assist those who face roadblocks to finding employment. As we examine four of the major barriers to employment, we’ll cover how comprehensive social work approaches can help people become gainfully employed and better support themselves and their families.
The major barriers include:
- Higher education
- Mental health
Let’s examine each in more detail.
Education impacts the types of work people do for a living, job conditions, and the income they earn. Lack of access to higher education leads to disparities in employment. A substantial number of people, especially in low-income areas, do not have access to the resources needed to enroll in and complete a college program, which generally results in a significant reduction in their job prospects, salary potential, opportunities for advancement, job security, and benefits.
Even when these individuals are able to find work, they are often forced to take positions that provide low wages, low levels of control, and poor or undesirable working conditions, which can include exposure to toxins and other dangers.
Social workers aid clients in getting an affordable college education through intervention strategies designed to increase access and affordability such as helping them apply for loans, financial aid, and scholarships. They also help people put together all the puzzle pieces related to attending college, including the non-academic aspects.
- Affordable housing
- Education supplies
Sometimes, it’s not just about physical needs and monetary barriers. Jennifer Weeber, an instructor in the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Kentucky, spent about two decades as a social worker employed by a private non-profit, where she held multiple positions, including case manager.
In addition to developing a support program that helped recipients meet many of the necessities listed above, she would take clients to local community or technical college campuses to tour and talk to professors when possible. “While these visits do not make college any more financially accessible, they are a way to make it more psychologically accessible by allowing people to feel more comfortable in an environment with which they are not familiar and which may be beyond what they had ever envisioned for themselves,” she explains.
Once learners are enrolled and taking courses, social workers can still play a role in making sure they earn their degrees. At many colleges, social workers are accessible to students through their schools, providing mental health support that helps them succeed all the way through graduation. These professionals offer psychotherapy, advocacy, facilitation, and mediation for learners, and can also direct them to community resources for further assistance.
Throughout higher education, students may rely heavily on social workers for the empowerment and assistance they need to balance coursework with stressors, challenges, and hardships in their personal lives. This ensures that more people receive the education they need to land a good job and make a steady living for themselves and their families.
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Sending their kids to daycare or hiring a babysitter is cost-prohibitive for many parents, which can make it difficult or even impossible for them to work. In recent years, the relationship between childcare and stable work has been emphasized. According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, over the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 2.3 million women left the labor force, many due to the lack of reliable childcare during that time. For some parents, finding affordable and reliable childcare was a barrier to holding a job long before the pandemic.
Social workers aid parents in finding and registering for affordable childcare options. Many social workers go a step further, ensuring that programs are located close to the family’s home or parents’ workplaces and that they have open spaces available and proper certifications or licensure. They explore total cost, hours of operation, available activities, and curricula, while keeping each child’s age and personality in mind. To help make life easier, social workers also work to make sure a care center is close to a family’s home or parents’ workplaces.
Government Resources for Accessible Childcare
In the Office of Child Care (OCC), a social services organization within the US federal government, social workers aid low-income working families by providing them with better access to affordable, high-quality before- and after-school daycare programs, as well as full-day plans for pre-school children. Kids are eligible for this assistance from birth through age 12. Parents can choose their preferred providers from a list of participants and may receive education to help them make this decision as well.
The OCC administers the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a grant awarded to state, territory, and tribal governments, which helps families pay for childcare that meets their needs and prepares their children for academic success. By creating policies and supervising their implementation, offering guidance to governments, and supporting training and education for childcare workers, the CCDF also enhances the caliber of care to ensure healthy child development. Social workers’ role in this vital part of stable employment helps individuals, families and society.
Some clients of social workers experience untreated or even undiagnosed mental health issues. These problems can make it difficult or impossible to find gainful employment, which perpetuates a dangerous cycle, because unemployment itself also has negative mental health consequences. Some people who are out of work report that they experience anxiety, worry, depression, low self-esteem and demoralization.
Mental health issues can have harmful physical effects as well. Continuous stress leads to conditions such as:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Strokes and heart attacks
One of the ways in which social workers help in the area of mental health is through advocacy for clients. Issues in treatment often reflect disparities. Advocacy requires that social workers are able to bring a justice lens to client needs and recognize systemic barriers that are present, including stigma, lack of access to health providers and medications, and ability to comply with treatment recommendations. Advocacy entails fighting for the clients’ rights and articulating needs with various entities, including with the client and on behalf of the client with families, communities, and the agencies designed to meet client needs.
Other social work intervention strategies include counseling for individuals and families dealing with issues such as depression, stress, anxiety, anger, or grief. Through these forms of treatment, social workers who are also trained in psychology help patients heal by changing certain behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions to reduce or end their pain and develop a better understanding of themselves, other people, and different situations.
Therapy and Other Treatments
Sometimes, social workers will refer clients to other mental health professionals — such as psychologists, or psychiatrists — for treatment, depending on the specific issues the client is dealing with and the degree and nature of the social workers’ education and experience in mental health. The social workers or other professionals often coordinate with doctors to come up with treatment plans that involve both therapy and medication.
Outside of ensuring that clients get the proper mental healthcare, social workers also help their clients develop effective self-care plans — which may include mindful meditation, walks in nature, reading, and healthy ways to respond to or avoid harmful emotional triggers — enabling the clients to better deal with and reduce negative feelings and burnout. No longer overburdened with mental suffering, these individuals then have the capacity and motivation to end their unemployment by seeking, securing, and maintaining lucrative jobs.
Many social workers also work to reduce the negative connotations around getting help for mental health issues. University of Kentucky instructor Weeber notes, “Social workers also have a role to play in the broader community to reduce the stigma around mental illness and to develop effective services to address it. I’ve been involved with our local NAMI organization in planning events and other activities that raise awareness of mental illness in our community and create support. We held a training for our local police force on mental illness, with the goal of helping them obtain the skills and techniques they needed to de-escalate situations and provide sick people with access to services, instead of just using force to address a problem.”
Another issue that is both mental and physical is addiction, a condition that commonly manifests itself in substance dependency or abuse. Further complicating matters is the fact that approximately 50% of people who have substance use disorders are also battling serious mental illness.
Social workers frequently work with individuals and families suffering from addiction, helping these clients get needed treatment at medical clinics, hospitals, and residential live-in care settings. Treatment can include detoxification, rehabilitation, and therapy or counseling, and can range in duration from a few weeks to a year or more. Additionally, there are social workers who work onsite at treatment facilities to care for clients and patients during their stays.
Outside of the hospital and facility environments, social workers also assist clients by getting them into therapy and counseling sessions with mental health professionals, either in an office or remotely via telehealth services. Some social workers provide therapy or counseling to patients themselves.
The work to get clients the required treatment involves staying up to date on available medications and other remedies, their costs, accessible payment assistance options, and the requirements for particular programs — and then assembling the right mix to meet the needs of each person. It also frequently entails providing transportation to the treatment and offering outside support while the client is being healed. It may include helping the person to make arrangements for their children, housing, and other responsibilities while they are in treatment and helping them rebuild their life when they’re finished, as well.
Community Involvement and Prevention
Additionally, at the group, community, and society levels, social workers’ approaches include developing programs that educate poor communities about how to prevent or reduce substance abuse and treat people struggling with this disorder. When it comes to the former, in a lot of cases, social workers are the educators, leading seminars in which they offer information, guidance, support, and techniques to residents.
“I have come to believe that, if our communities are healthy, our people are more likely to be healthy,” Weeber explains. “If they have access to housing, food, health care (both physical and mental), education, and healthy relationships, and if we provide effective and timely services for them when they experience trauma — while also removing the stigma associated with this — then more people will be well and less likely to have to self-medicate in order to function.”
By enabling their clients to reach this state of greater mental and physical wellness through the aforementioned intervention strategies, social workers give these individuals the power to climb out of unemployment and achieve professional success.
Be a Part of the Solution to Unemployment
The work that social workers do extends to all parts of our society and can assist in dismantling the barriers that lead to unemployment. For prospective students who are passionate about service and wish to start a career in a growing field, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work offers undergraduate programs as well as graduate options like the online Master of Social Work program. Both feature curricula taught by experienced instructors, many of whom are licensed professionals.
Designed for ultimate flexibility, the online MSW allows learners to study on their own schedules while still giving them the ability to interact with their professors and classmates. They can choose to pursue a clinical social work certificate, a substance use disorder certificate, or an individual plan of study.
Graduates are ready and exceptionally prepared to provide research-informed support at any scale—from serving individuals directly to coordinating organizational practice. Students also explore macro-level social work and drive positive change in social policy.
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