Isles in critical need of social workers
State agencies have a difficult time filling vital positions due partly to low wages
Former teen gang member Malakai Maumalanga says he owes his life to a social worker who wouldn't give up on him, so he decided to become one.
He's graduating today from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a bachelor's degree in social work and plans to get a master's. But people like Maumalanga are getting harder and harder to find.
Low pay and grueling case loads have created a worsening shortage of social workers in Hawaii.
SOCIAL WORKERS IN HAWAII
» There about 3,000 social workers in Hawaii working at the state, non-profits and universities, of those about 1,500 are considered licensed clinical social workers.
» In 2001, a statewide wage survey showed social workers earn an average hourly rate between $18.98 to $20.32.
» The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations says social work is one of the state's fastest-growing careers.
» Most social workers have a master's degree in social work.
Sources: State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, University of Hawaii School of Social Work
"There's a social impact that needs to be considered," said University of Hawaii School of Social Work Dean Jon Matsuoka. "The work that we do is critical. It's a big concern."
Locally and nationally, the demand for social workers has been higher than supply for years.
But officials say Hawaii's crystal methamphetamine epidemic, rising homelessness and a growing population of elderly -- coupled with more and more social workers reaching retirement -- has worsened the situation to critical proportions in the islands.
Maumalanga, 30, was just 14 when he got involved in gangs, but then he met Deborah Spencer, a social worker at Adult Friends for Youth. At 18, he was convicted of a firearms charge after participating in a drive-by shooting.
But Spencer stuck with Maumalanga, eventually persuading him to straighten up. Maumalanga now works with Spencer at Adult Friends for Youth.
"You got to love the job," he said. "It doesn't pay well. But it's rewarding as far as being able to witness change. It's hard to explain the feeling when you help somebody."
Recently, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations ranked social work as one of Hawaii's fastest-growing careers.
But only about 80 to 90 people graduate from the University of Hawaii yearly with master's degrees in social work, some of whom will seek positions outside the profession. Matsuoka said the school is operating at capacity, but is hoping to add more professors next year.
The shortage spurred Hawaii Pacific University to start its own master's in social-work degree in 2005. HPU has 19 people signed up for the coming semester. Some of the students are from out of state or country, though, and are not expected to remain once they graduate, said Mary Sheridan, social-work program chair.
"There are simply not enough educated social workers to fill the vacancies that are available," Sheridan said, adding that several factors have contributed to the shortage.
"Pay is not commensurate with other professions requiring the same level of training, and working conditions can be difficult," she said. "Then, organizations get into a downward spiral where they're short-staffed and therefore caseloads have to be high."
In 2004, the state responded to the shortage of social workers by creating a new position, "human service professional," that demands the same duties as social workers but doesn't require a social-work degree. The change upset many university-trained social workers, who warned it would affect the quality of services to clients.
"It's unfortunate the state chooses to hire individuals who are not trained in social-work and have them do the tasks they ask social workers to do," said Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Hawaii chapter.
But the state has said it had no choice.
Even with the creation of the human services professional category, there were 13 social worker vacancies at the state Department of Human Services in late 2005, a report to the Legislature said.
Carleton Taketa, personnel program administrator of the state Department of Human Resources Development, said social workers are usually preferred to human services professionals because they have more experience and training.
"However, we can't get enough people with social-work degrees," Taketa said. "We really need more people. The need is not going to go away. The need is going to fluctuate up again."
Non-profits in the islands say vacancies for social workers stay open for months, and are often filled by those with other degrees.
"I think they (social workers) are almost impossible to find," said Darlene Hein, director of the Waikiki Health Center's Care-A-Van homeless program.
Hein said it took her six months to fill a social worker position at her non-profit -- and the applicant was from the mainland.
At non-profit Parents and Children Together, the shortage has meant higher caseloads for existing social workers and decreased services, said vice president of programs Haaheo Mansfield.
"There's a whole body of knowledge that comes with a social worker that doesn't necessarily come with any other field," she said. With fewer social workers, she added, "people are getting a different quality, and a different level of services."