Going Macro: Exploring the Careers of Macro Practitioners

Jul 8, 2015

swWhen social workers hold positions with substantial community or policy influence, important benefits accrue to the profession and it’s vulnerable clientele. However, fewer social workers are holding these positions than in the past, and student preferences to pursue macro-specific training have declined.

What accounts for this decline, and can something be done to reverse it?

There is not a single explanation for why this shift has happened. Some agency leaders report that they intentionally avoid hiring social workers for leadership positions, perceiving them to lack the analytic and technical skills needed for management. In addition, student preferences to pursue macro-specific training have declined in recent years; currently, over 90 percent of MSW students enroll in micro or advanced generalist courses of study. Although the majority of licensed social workers ultimately engage in some administrative work in their careers, very few spend the majority of their time on tasks related to administration and management, community organizing, or policy development, suggesting that most social workers who have administrative roles currently hold lower management positions.

To increase the social work profession’s ability to recruit and educate students interested in competing for leadership positions in human services organizations, it is important that we understand the dynamics of current macro professionals’ careers. As the practice orientation of students’ MSW education is an important factor in preparing social workers for their subsequent careers, greater knowledge about the experiences of macro professionals can assist educators in supporting students considering a macro concentration and career. Currently, limited career-related information is available for students interested in a macro career; however, it is known that common factors which social work students consider when deciding whether to pursue a macro concentration include job availability, competition for positions with other master’s-degree graduates, preparation for licensing exams, and the extent to which frontline experience is a prerequisite for professional macro positions. Students indicate that potential salaries are an important consideration in selecting a concentration.

To improve the social work profession’s ability to recruit and educate students interested in competing for leadership positions in human services organizations, in a recent issue of the journal Social Work, Suzanne Pritzker, PhD, and Steven R. Applewhite, PhD, published their findings based on data from a survey of MSW graduates of a public school of social work located in the southwestern United States and currently working as macro practitioners. They conducted an online cross-sectional survey designed and administered in the fall of 2011 to MSW graduates of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who are also currently practicing macro social work.

The researchers asked questions concerning which sector the macro-practitioners worked in (i.e., Non-profit, Public, or Private), whether their positions were open to other professionals (MBAs, etc.), if their position required licensure, etc. They also asked about what responsibilities their macro-practice position involved, such as administration, budgeting, research, advocacy, case management, etc.

Their findings indicated that macro social workers can successfully compete for mid- and top-level administrative and policy positions in human services organizations. The data provided evidence contrary to many of the concerns students voiced in deciding whether to pursue a macro concentration or career, such as job availability, lower salaries, whether direct practice is a prerequisite for a successful macro career, and preparation for licensure.

All social workers benefit from exposure to both clinical and macro content. In fact, a substantial number of respondents noted that they use clinical skills in their macro practice. However, the data suggests that macro-specific experience may be an important precursor to the responsibilities expected of professional macro practitioners. The large majority of the responsibilities held by macro practitioners in our sample seem to require substantial technical macro-focused expertise. If the social work profession wants to maintain (or reintroduce) a presence in the upper echelons of management of human services organizations, then preparing students to be competent agency leaders is essential. To do this, social work programs’ missions and objectives need to reflect the importance of both clinical and macro practice philosophies and methods, and advanced macro-specific education should be a key component of preparation for students who ultimately desire to engage in macro practice.

The authors conclude:

Students who enter MSW programs with their sights on agency leadership or substantial policy influence may feel pressured to reconsider their choice. Whether due to limited attention to macro practice in program materials; limited macro faculty and limited generalist exposure to macro content; or negative comments from fellow students, faculty, or field instructors, these students may lack the necessary information to make educational career choices that match their personal goals. The study indicates that a wide array of potential positions are open to macro graduates; that these positions rely substantially on macro-specific practice skills and behaviors; that macro salaries are competitive if not higher than their micro counterparts; and that obtaining master’s-level licensure, though important, is neither unachievable nor essential for employment for many macro practitioners.

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