Education and workforce planning: a social good or a commodity?

Last month the Abbott Government wound up Health Workforce Australia sending a very clear signal that it believes planning is…well..overrated. Welcome to the world of  deregulation and smaller government. Marketised environments are by their nature, fragmented, competitive (even when co-operation would be the better option), bounded by risk assessment, outsourcing, contracts and the allocation of blame. Caveat emptor.

We can barely tolerate this state of affairs in for example, the mobile phone market- (think massive profits and extortionate charges, fine print contracts etc). We all love our telcos! But when it comes to delivering an inter-related set of social goods- education, training and work, give me co-operation, partnership and planning please.

It genuinely puzzles me that the advocates of deregulation point to America as an ideal. Student debt in the USA is now over a trillion dollars, in an environment that has been characterised by dodgy providers, slick in marketing, but very poor in training students to be job ready.

For our profession there is an extra level of complexity as we straddle both the health and welfare industries. A friend and colleague of mine, Marie-Claire Cheron-Sauer  has done a comprehensive report on this issue as a Churchill Fellow, - Social Work Education and Workforce Planning and Development in England, Europe, the United States and Canada. It is compelling reading for anyone interested in this topic.

Some quotes from her summary will give you the flavor.

The supply of a high quality workforce for the health and social assistance industry and for social work will require collaborative strategies that cross organisational boundaries and sectors. Governments, employers, higher education providers, the professional association and practitioners all have a role to play in ensuring the availability and sustainability of a high quality social work workforce and must work in partnership to achieve this..

A collective approach to leadership is required to achieve the vision of a strong profession, confident in its knowledge and skill base and able to clearly articulate the distinctive contribution of social work in meeting the needs of service users. Developing leadership within the profession will require sustained work across a range of sectors, organisations and levels. The diversity of leadership roles within the Profession need to be acknowledged, including the need for visible social work leadership at the frontline of practice, policy, research and management…

Debates about the purpose of education, that is, whether it is about readiness to practice (‘fit for purpose’) or for the development of critical thinking and analytical capacity can lead to inaction when these are polarised at opposing ends of the spectrum. There needs to be a recognition that education is about both the development of critical thinking skills to challenge oppressive practice and ability to undertake lifelong learning, as well as necessary preparation for practice–that is, the need for graduates to be ‘fit for practice’. Employers and education providers must assume joint responsibility for ensuring the readiness to practice of newly qualified social workers in the workforce. Responsibility needs to be taken for ensuring that the curriculum allows for the development of research and analytical skills in ways that facilitate adaptive capacity and ability to acquire new knowledge and skills to work effectively with emerging and evolving population needs…

Practice education is an essential component of social work education and field practice educators play an integral role in achieving good learning outcomes, ‘fitness to practice’ and development of professional identity for newly qualified social workers. The quality of field practice educators is critical to achieving these outcomes. A national competency framework and nationally endorsed training in field supervision must be necessary requirements for all practice educators as preparation for supervising students…

An industry/education partnership approach with extended internships as preparation for practice is a useful approach that could be considered for the development of specialised social work programmes.”

Well worth reading- even it it feels right now that we are holding up candles in the dark.

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