Mia Bennett has a senior client — let’s call her Joy — whose life is managed by caretakers and her daughters, one of whom holds power of attorney. “She has been declared incapacitated, but she’s very aware of what’s going on around her,” Bennett says of Joy. “She can’t make cognitively sound decisions, but if I walked in the door next week, she would remember me. She knows she has this incapacity determination, and it affects her very much.”
Joy forgets she is no longer in control of her finances or medical care, so occasionally she will call and cancel a doctor appointment, or try to pay a credit card bill that’s already been covered. Her daughters, frustrated with the interruptions, wanted to get rid of the phone, but Bennett intervened. “My role has been educating the daughters about quality of life, and preserving [Joy’s] dignity,” Bennett told me. “If we took away her phone, she would know that. It would cause anger and frustration, and that’s not healthy, either.”
Bennett expected to do this type of work after she received master’s degrees in social work and gerontology, but not in this setting: She is a vice president in Wells Fargo’s life management division, where she oversees care for older clients. Employees like Bennett who are trained in social work, public health, and other social sciences have the interpersonal skills companies clamor for, and they possess backgrounds in ethics and culture that dovetails with corporate interest in social responsibility. Thus, colleges, including Bennett’s alma mater the University of Southern California (USC), are asking social work students to consider careers in the private sector. And in a corporate world plagued with scandals and a growing awareness of workplace harassment, the timing couldn’t be better.
The case for social workers in the future of work
Researchers have coalesced around the notion that employees of the future will require interpersonal capability. Employers care more and more about social skills, and as simpler tasks are automated, consulting firm McKinsey predicts social and emotional capabilities will be in demand in the coming decades. Communication, pattern recognition, evaluating consequence: These are all skills a good therapist or social scientist must possess. A good programmer can code herself out of a job, but it’s hard to replace the services a counselor provides.
Developments within corporations are also broadening the need for experts in societal good. “Corporate social responsibility, work-life balance, inclusion–those did not even exist a few decades ago,” says Michàlle Mor Barak, a University of Southern California social work professor who specializes in workplace diversity. “And now, large and even midsize companies have corporate officers in charge of those areas.”
Seeing a void, some social work schools are pitching the corporate world to their students and vice versa. USC has been a pioneer in this field. Since 2009, the university’s social work school has been setting up internships in nontraditional industries, including finance and entertainment. Graduates now work for Amazon, Warner Brothers, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Numerous universities, including Pittsburgh, Columbia, and Michigan, have joined USC in offering joint master’s degrees in business administration and social work.
Changing corporate culture
There’s certainly evidence that companies could use ethical help. Facebook, Uber, and Wells Fargo recently issued ads apologizing for corporate malfeasance. Had a social worker been present in the decision-making process, perhaps Facebook ads would be less discriminatory and less likely to sway democratic institutions. Uber’s workplace culture could have veered in a friendlier direction with an equity expert by Travis Kalanick’s side. And just imagine if Exxon had environmental justice experts on staff 40 years ago, when its scientists figured out that its products were causing climate change.
“Corporations are centered on profit making,” says Hidenori Yamatani, who oversees the University of Pittsburgh’s new MBA-MSW dual degree program. “It’s not that they’re necessarily unethical . . . they mean well. They just have not had training like social work students have in the area of social justice, individual rights, and utilitarian principles.”
Broadly changing corporate behavior is a heady task, but social workers say their expertise can quickly make the workplace a friendlier and healthier place for employees. Michelle Zadrozny is a clinical social worker in Austin who has worked with numerous companies in the state. She often sees firms implement measures designed to foster a fun workplace that instead are detrimental to employees. “For instance,” she says, “a lot of tech companies in Austin will have tons of free alcohol on their premises, and then bad things happen because they’re not educating people about alcoholism and substance abuse. And they may even be creating problems unintentionally. They’re like, ‘No, we have a great party work culture. What’s wrong with that?'”
Those looking to broaden the footprint of social workers see natural fits in the for-profit sector. A human resources department staffed with therapists could better handle harassment claims, and recruiters working with social scientists could better target minority candidates. Corporate philanthropy arms would benefit, one can surmise, from case workers who understand a community’s greatest needs. The people best suited to run diversity and inclusion efforts might be those who study diversity and inclusion for a living.
But nontraditional roles could benefit from a social worker’s touch. When Bennett first started working with Wells Fargo, there was no precedent for having a social worker on board. It soon became clear, though, that she could improve customer satisfaction, and more folks with social-services backgrounds have been hired.
“Even if I’m not the most expert person as it relates to investment or a trust administration question, there are plenty of people around who can answer those questions,” Bennett says. “But I’m one of the few people that can actually answer a question or have some insight into needs of life management, or the day-to-day issues of getting older.”
Colleges pushing social workers into the for-profit realm are taking it upon themselves to convince students and companies alike that they are a good match, even if neither party had ever considered each other. “Because we are at the juncture of social work and business, both communities don’t quite understand each other,” Mor Barak says. But the belief is that social workers help build more resilient companies that better serve their customers. Once her students are hired, Mor Barak has observed, companies typically hang on to them.
Jake Bullinger is a journalist based in Tacoma, Washington, who writes about the U.S. West.