Social work is demanding, stressful and occasionally dangerous, so why do it? Social work officer Jenny Yan, of the government's Social Welfare Department, says that job satisfaction and a sense of civic duty make this a rewarding career.
Given the commitment and dedication required to be a social worker, it is a little surprising that Ms Yan never really considered the career at school. It was when she decided to do some voluntary work that she glimpsed her career path: "I [met] some social workers; their job struck me as being interesting and challenging work which also did some good for the community."
In Hong Kong, it is possible to go into social work after completing a first degree in the subject. An alternative route is to take a diploma course, allowing lower grade entry. In the government's Social Welfare Department, diploma holders join as social work assistants, while degree holders join at officer level.
"Not all social work graduates join the profession, even though it is a highly specialised subject," says Ms Yan. "Many opt for entirely different careers such as public relations, banking, insurance or even the police force. Social work is definitely a demanding career and, especially when the economy is doing well, many graduates move into other areas."
"It is difficult to switch to related careers, as there really aren't any," she adds. "Career switchers usually have to start at the bottom. There are a few openings for social workers at the Correctional Services Department, which sometimes hires staff to help former inmates rehabilitate into society."
Strong characters required
Social workers need the right attitude more than the right skills, according to Ms Yan. "Skills can be taught or picked up, but it takes a certain type of person to really get into social work," she says.
"A strong character is essential to cope with the challenges of the profession, as are counselling skills, being able to empathise with people and problem-solving. We need to be open with the people we are helping [and] encourage them to accept our help, but at the same time remain professional."
The latest civil service budget cuts are taking their toll on social workers and Ms Yan says that the government is cutting back on hiring, signifying fewer opportunities for recent graduates. "In fact, many graduates have to apply for social work assistant positions originally intended for diploma holders, if they are to stay in this field."
In addition, the job can seem distinctly unrewarding. "Young people thinking of doing social work need to be prepared to work long, hard hours," she warns. "They need to really enjoy their work and want to make a difference to society. This is not a job that you would do for material or monetary rewards. You need to invest plenty of time and energy, which can often be difficult and stressful."
"We need to be open with the people we are helping [and] encourage them to accept our help, but at the same time remain professional"
A rewarding task
In Ms Yan's 15 years in social work, the scope of the job has not altered much, although it is more difficult. "We care for people from when they first come into the world until they reach old age," she notes, adding that the usual community outreach programmes of youth centres, family relations activities and care of the elderly remain much the same.
"The job has become more difficult because of the many social changes in recent years. Shifts in emigration and immigration, plus the poor economic situation, have caused a great deal of upheaval in society, which causes trauma for people."
This should not discourage like-minded and committed individuals from joining the Social Welfare Department and Ms Yan says that the job satisfaction far outweighs the difficulties. "Sometimes, when the stress starts to become too much, I just remind myself that what we do makes a real difference to people and society."
Currently, there is little scope to get into social work in mainland China as the Central Government's social welfare department only hires Chinese nationals. Hong Kong social workers do make occasional forays into the Mainland, however, as they sometimes go to meet imminent immigrants to Hong Kong to prepare them for life in the hustle and bustle of the big city.
"Many immigrants are new brides of Hong Kong men and, even if they have lived in a Chinese city, moving to Hong Kong can be a huge culture shock," says Ms Yan. "It's not just a language problem either, as many immigrants already speak Cantonese. It's more to do with little things like not squatting on the floor or spitting in the street - behaviour that is unacceptable here. Then there's the transition from wide open spaces to the cramped conditions in Hong Kong."