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Faculty Interviews

Ask the Assistant Field Education Coordinator: Jennifer Pierce Discusses the Skills Necessary to be an Effective Social Worker

Jennifer Pierce

Being a social worker requires a full tool kit of skills.

Find out how earning an MSW can establish foundational skills to prepare you for a broad range of career paths. The skills Professor Jennifer Pierce learned while earning her MSW degree over 20 years ago are still at the core of how she practices social work today. Learn about these skills in the short question-and-answer session below.

What was your motivation for pursuing a career in social work? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
My motivation for pursuing a career in social work was greatly influenced by my family. Early on I felt drawn to working with children and families. I initially majored in education, but switched to psychology very early on in my undergraduate studies. It wasn’t until early in my senior year, that I was able to put my finger on it. I was in a grocery store and saw an issue of Time magazine featuring a young girl in New York who had been abused and murdered by her mother. The article detailed the failures of the child protective services system to intervene and save her. I was mesmerized, I finally had a name for what I wanted to do, child welfare social work. Next semester, I secured my field placement with the Oregon Department of Human Services and fell in love with the work. So began my career in social work. I earned my MSW and spent approximately 15 years doing child welfare work and I still have that magazine and keep it as a reminder of the little girl who inspired me.

How is social work changing? What are the trends you see that will shape the field in the coming years?
The most striking trend I have noticed is the convergence of social work and business. I worked for a non-profit that in a 10 year span saw its annual budget increase from $500K to over $4 million. My experience in healthcare also opened my eyes to the financial and business intricacies involved in delivering high quality, cost-efficient, patient centered services. I’ve encountered a number of individuals in my recent professional experience who hold both MSW and MBA degrees in an effort to gain skills in both behavioral and administrative sciences with a focus on resource management, program administration, decision making and leadership. Social work programs must often creatively cobble together varied sources of inconsistent funding and also meet the demands of federal and state grant funding and reporting requirements. Historically, social workers have not received business and management training. And many of us moved into supervisory and administrative positions after earning an MSW. But there’s a learning curve when it comes to managing people, programs and resources that are at times counter intuitive to our social work skills. We need to be prepared as social work leaders to ensure that our programs remain solvent and are able to flexibly meet the demands of our communities.

What does it take to be an effective Social Worker?
Being an effective social worker requires a full tool kit of skills. Twenty years into my career, I feel like a bit of a jack of all trades. Spanning micro, mezo and macro scenarios, social work practice is extremely dynamic and requires a great deal of flexibility, critical thinking and creativity. In my opinion, core social work skills include integrity, professionalism, problem solving and critical thinking skills, a deep understanding of structural oppression and social justice issues, advocacy skills, interpersonal skills, organizational, time management and project management skills, decisiveness, and ability to think outside of the box and increasingly, the knowledge and skills to interact with current technologies. I also think that we always have to be willing to take risks while recognizing what we don’t know. We cannot be the expert on every issue, and it is irresponsible and unethical to try and effect change without listening, observing and enlisting those who can help us the most. When working with individuals, this means engaging the individual to create a person centered plan. And with communities and systems it involves listening and involving key stakeholders. Social work practice cannot be effective without the input and influence of many.

What is the value of an MSW in today’s marketplace?
When I talk with students about the value of a graduate degree, I cannot emphasize enough the value of the MSW as the most versatile and well-rounded option. The MSW degree allows one to choose from a broad range of career paths. From clinical work to health care and non-profit administration, child welfare practice, school social work, military and veteran support, medical social work, policy practice, community organizing, international and environmental social work. The list is endless. Having done this work for a long time, I can say that the foundational skills I learned while earning my MSW are the core of how I practice social work. It’s a lot like cooking. If you get the methods down, the recipes and ingredients may change, but you can do the work well. We are change agents, we use our tools to make things happen. So whether one is a community organizer addressing a social justice issue or an analyst collaborating for healthcare transformation at a state level, an MSW can make things happen by virtue of our social work tools – professionalism, problem solving, critical thinking, advocacy and interpersonal skills

What makes the Nevada Reno MSW online stand out from the crowd?
I think UNR is unique in its relationship to the local community and the level of hands on involvement in advocacy work done by the faculty. The online program evolved from a natural shift to online learning as the school recognized a community need, but the program remains true to its integrity by mirroring the roots of the core social work curriculum that has existed in the traditional program. Faculty and staff are passionate about social work education and work to ensure that our workforce is educated and equipped to work for social justice and to help individuals improve their lives.

What could you have learned from the program that could have helped?
When I earned my MSW, I chose a clinical concentration in a non-generalist practice program, thinking early in my career that was the work I wanted to do. Looking back, after realizing my true passion is in policy work and administration, I wish I had been exposed to more training on those subjects which I feel would have prepared me for administrative work I sought after earning my degree.

Do you have questions? Learn more about your role in social work’s future with the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program today. The School of Social Work at University of Nevada, Reno has a long history of educating Nevada’s social workers and professionals in the United States. Its focus is to educate, advocate, and empower.