Phase two: The readiness to practice of newly qualified social workers

Research question

How well prepared are Newly Qualified Social Workers (NQSWs) to enter professional social work, and how is their learning supported and enhanced in the workplace?

Methods

This phase of the study had two parts: firstly, an online survey of NQSWs (N=119) and managers /professional supervisors of NQSWs (N=158); and secondly, qualitative interviews with NQSWs (N=15) and managers /professional supervisors of NQSWs (N=17).

Indicative findings

The findings from the surveys and interviews are described in the phase two report in considerable depth and detail and cannot be neatly summarised in this short overview. The full report is organised into the following sections: entering the workforce; working life; workplace support, learning and development; and the transition from student to practitioner. Some highlights from each section are included below.

Entering the workforce

Almost two thirds of respondents stated that their current social work post was the first held since graduating, just over a quarter stated they were in their second job since graduating. Almost a third found their present employment by having been a student on placement in that agency. Over half of NQSWs indicated they had had no probationary period and almost half had had no mentor assigned to them on commencement of their post.

Working life

The most highly rated factors motivating students to become social workers were related to the worthwhileness of the job including helping people to improve their quality of life, stimulating work and tackling injustice. Career related factors such as well-paid job and good career prospects were far less significant.

The majority of NQSWs held very positive attitudes towards their current job with almost half stating they enjoyed their current position very much and over a third quite enjoying it. The main sources of dissatisfaction for the minority who expressed it were: conditions of employment (pay, superannuation, annual leave, etc.); coping with workload; and prospects for advancement and promotion.

Workplace support, learning and development

Many of the sources of job satisfaction for NQSWs derive from informal peer and team support factors: including professional support and guidance from colleagues, friendliness of other staff in the workplace and teamworking. Strong support from managers is also indicated in levels of satisfaction with accessibility of my line manager and professional support and guidance from line manager featuring highly.

Just over two thirds of respondents stated that they had access to some form of induction on commencing their present position. However, the content of most induction appeared to be focussed on corporate issues and priorities such as organisational policies and procedures, organisational values, general health and safety, record-keeping and confidentiality.

Around half of NQSWs were supervised at least once every two weeks, but another half were supervised monthly or less frequently. Whilst monthly supervision is the SWRB requirement for all social workers this seems insufficiently frequent for NQSW.

In the majority of cases the primary focus of supervision was on advice and guidance on difficult cases, although personal support and case review were also frequently identified. In terms of improvements to the supervision process many NQSWs wanted more attention paid to the educational and developmental aspects of professional supervision including: help in applying theory to practice, more discussion on training needs and suggestions for developing reflection and self-awareness.

Only one quarter of NQSWs stated they had received cultural or kaupapa supervision to support their work with Māori and/or other cultural groups. Of those who had received cultural supervision almost all found it very or quite helpful. In addition, of those who had not received cultural supervision, two thirds agreed it was something that would be helpful to them.

Over two-thirds of NQSWs received some form of training, apart from induction, with most of this training being provided in-house. However, the idea of protected development time for independent study was less common with only a third of NQSWs stating that they had such time. Only a quarter of NQSWs stated that their supervisor had discussed post-qualifying social work education.

Asked to score their capability on a scale from 1 to 10 both now and when they first started their current job almost all NQSWs indicated an upward shift in perceived capability over time with the half had increased in self-perceived capability by at least three points on the scale.

The transition from student to practitioner

Two thirds of NQSWs felt that their degree programme had prepared them very or fairly well for their present job. Only one in ten considered they were not very well, or not at all well prepared. From the perspective of managers or professional supervisors of NQSWs two thirds stated they were either very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the quality of newly-qualified social workers, none were very dissatisfied and only one in ten was fairly dissatisfied.

Managers were asked to rate their perceptions of NQSWs’ knowledge, qualities, skill and abilities. Almost all NQSW were considered to be excellent or adequate in relation to effective engagement with service users. Mangers also rated NQSWs highly in relation to teamworking ability and their commitment to best interests of service users and carers.

In terms of analytical abilities three quarters of managers/professional supervisors perceived NQSWs to be excellent or adequate although this ability also attracted a rating of disappointing from almost a quarter of managers/professional supervisors. Whilst the majority of managers considered NQSWs to be excellent or adequate in relation to coping with stress, almost a quarter of managers/professional supervisors were disappointed in this quality of NQSWs

The final part of the survey inquired, firstly, into the types of specialist knowledge respondents considered to be relevant to their present job; and secondly, whether, when they started working, they knew as much about that area of specialist knowledge as was expected of them. The top five areas of specialist knowledge identified by the NQSW sample as a whole were: child protection/safeguarding children; working with Māori; mental health conditions and their likely progress; the rights of the child; and family violence.

Considering the five most frequently cited areas of specialist knowledge against employers’ expectations, the largest gap was in in relation to mental health conditions and their likely progress where four in ten NQSWs were expected to know more than they did.

There were, however, larger gaps in area of knowledge that were less frequently cited as relevant to the current job. For example, although only four in ten NQSWs cited preparing reports for legal proceedings in court/tribunal as relevant to their present job, this specialist knowledge area had the largest perceived gap with seven in ten NQSWs expected to know more.

NQSWs also selected from a list of topics they wish they knew more about and the five most frequently selected were: working with trauma; dealing with hostility, aggression or conflict; the legal basis for social work interventions; assessing risk; and services and resources available locally ‘in your patch’ that might benefit the service users or carers on your case.

One interesting observation to note, is that the top five topics that NQSWs wish they knew more about in Aotearoa New Zealand are identical to those identified by English NQSWs surveyed in 2009 (with the exception of the topic of trauma which was not included in the English study). One interpretation of this similarity in NQSW experience between different jurisdictions is that the topics highlighted may be related to issues inherent in the transition from student to practitioner status. As one of the NQSW interviewees put it:

You almost need an internship type programme, or some sort of bridging thing between your degree and when you go out to work. Like a graduate programme. There’s something missing in-between and you get a job and get thrown out into the deep end and it’s a bit of a wake-up call. (Josie, NQSW)

This issue of the transition from social work student to practitioner status, and the gradual process of skill acquisition, was also strongly evident in the English study (Sharpe et al., 2011) that the researchers concluded that their findings supported “the development of an overarching professional standards framework” (p. 147) and the inclusion of an Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) as part of a professional capabilities framework.