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August 25, 2009

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Social work graduates add expertise to neighborhood committees

IN her daily work, Huang Faqin collects sanitation fees, hands out condoms, and puts up notices in a neighborhood in Zhongguancun, Beijing's high-tech hub. Most of her colleagues are her mother's age.

The 22-year-old college graduate is one of 2,500 social workers with a bachelor's degree or higher hired by the city government this year.

The government expects them to provide a more professional service to residents than the traditional workers of residents' committees, China's urban grassroots organizations that look after neighborhoods' daily affairs.

"I am still dealing with routine community affairs. But as I know better about the neighborhood, I may be able to apply what I learn from college," Huang says.

In many Chinese minds, social workers at residents' committees are a group of 50 or 60-something retirees who help solve quarrels.

The work of residents' committees needs more expertise than just social experience to help urban residents, who are facing more complicated problems than before - from drug abuse and domestic violence to elderly people living alone, says Xu Liya, dean of the China Youth University for Political Sciences' (CYUPC) Department of Social Work.

Weakening family support and loosening neighborhood relations also increased the need for a more professional community service.

"For instance, traditionally workers at residents' committees tend to pacify a marital discord. Instead, trained social workers will listen to specific needs of the couple and help them find out the real problem of their marriage. Perhaps they will suggest a divorce," Xu says.

Trained social workers with college backgrounds not only know the principles of what should be done and what should not, but also have a better understanding of new social problems, she says.

"But, as young people doing their first job, they also have a lot to learn from their experienced colleagues. I think they can learn from each other," Xu adds.

The community plans to set up a social service center with more trained social workers but has not yet drawn up a clear timetable, Huang says.

Communities, schools and hospitals need trained social workers the most.

In April, the People's Hospital of Peking University set up a department of social work. Guan Ting, 25, who has a master's degree of social work, started working there.

"I listen to patients, try to share their pains and sooth their mental troubles," she says. What she does was never considered part of a hospital's work before and was usually done by patients' families and friends.

Professor Wang Wei, with the China National School of Administration, says professional social work was filling a blank left by the government.

"The government used to take care of nearly every aspect of people's lives, but now it has retreated from many sectors. The country will need a social work framework made up by the government and non-governmental organizations," he says. "Having more trained social workers is just the first step."

Wang says the government should improve management of non-governmental social work organizations.

"There are no clear laws or regulations about their qualification and work. This has put them in a vague position," he says.

While there is increasing need for social workers, many of those who are well-trained do not regard it a promising career.

Many college graduates choose the job at residents' committees partly because of the tough employment market and the Beijing residence permit it offers.

"Since I got this job, I will work hard. But, when I settle down in Beijing, I might find another job," Huang says.

Income is the main disincentive. Huang earns about 1,000 yuan (US$146) a month, about the same as a waitress.

Wu Shiyou, a CYUPC graduate who majored in social work, has better pay as a social worker in a university. But he was still unhappy.

"One of my classmates, who works for a multinational, earns about 150,000 yuan a year, three times more than my salary," he says. "With my income, I can never buy an apartment of my own in Beijing."

The relatively low pay has stopped many of his classmates choosing the vocation they studied for four years, he says.

On the other hand, positions are limited.

In Shanghai, about 8,000 people have obtained social work certificates, but many of them do not work in the field, Xu says.

"Social work is a late-starting profession in China and far from being developed," Xu says. "People are gradually getting to know about social work and accepting it one of the services they should have."

In June 2008, China launched the first examination for social worker certification.

This year, major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province began recruiting college graduates as social workers in communities.

"The government should work more to raise the pay of social workers and provide stable career development," Wang says. "Plus, social work demands keen dedication."

The Shanghai and Shenzhen governments are working in this direction. Shenzhen plans to raise the monthly wage of a junior social worker such as Huang to about 3,720 yuan in the next three years.


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