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Social Work Manpower

Given that Hong Kong has achieved considerable economic development and the government could generate sufficient revenue to finance its social policy provisions, there is a wide range of welfare services in which social workers perform their duties. Thus, there are quite a sizeable number of professional social workers in Hong Kong – as of April 2009, there are a total of 14,460 Registered Social Workers. Similar to other places, there is a majority of female – 71.7 per cent (as compared to 28.3% male) – practitioners, apparently substantiating the usual claim that social work is a 'feminine' occupation. There are more practitioners with degree level of training: 57.7 per cent, while sub-degree level constituted 41 per cent and others 1.3 per cent. A majority of practitioners worked in the NGO sector (58.6%), some 13.1 per cent in the government, and another 28.3 per cent with no information provided. It should suffice to clarify that, some registered social workers may not be actually practising, but they only want to register to acquire such a qualification. Such a distribution should be understood against the background that the Hong Kong government assumes responsibility for providing statutory services – for example, probation and some specific family services – which only take up a relatively small proportion of the entire welfare sector, and that social welfare services are largely provided by NGOs.

Although there is quite a critical mass of social work practitioners in Hong Kong, with the constant supply from training institutes, there have been considerably high wastage and turnover rates over the years, which can be seen in the reports of the Social Work Manpower Requirements System. This system originated from the efforts of a Joint Committee set up in 1987 comprising representatives from the
government's Social Welfare Department and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (2010). The committee provides a platform in which both government and the NGO sector work together in devising a Social Work Manpower Planning System, which from 2005 onwards has been renamed the Social Work Manpower Requirements System.

In fact, social work manpower planning has been a formidable task in Hong Kong. In the first place, the Hong Kong economy is rather volatile as it is subjected to regional and global economic environmental changes, given its small scale of economy and its external-oriented nature. Thus, the labor market is subjected to the booms and bumps of economic performance, which has implications on drawing away trained professional social workers, especially those fresh graduates who might aspire for a more adventurous careers in the business (especially financial) field.

To illustrate, during the late 1980s – when many social work graduates did not enter the profession, leading to a manpower shortage – the government injected money to local training institutes to implement the temporary measure of increasing annual intake to training programs. However, upon the completion of the program, the large number of graduates faced a contracted market in the welfare sector due to reduced manpower wastage (due to economic downturn) and stagnant government expansion of social welfare services. On the other hand, the supply of social work manpower is also subject to the development of higher education. Upon the 1997 handover, the inaugural administration embarked on an ambitious expansion of tertiary education, thus leading to the proliferation of various self-funded, post-secondary programs, including professional social work training degrees and sub-degrees. Thus, although there has been a manpower planning mechanism instituted since the 1980s, there is no mandate for the system to coordinate and control 'demand' (i.e., the government's welfare services and the NGO sector) and 'supply' (i.e., the training institutes). It thus renders the recurrent mismatch of social work manpower demand and supply.

Upon closer examination, it can be seen that the turnover rate of social workers is much higher in the NGO sector than the government's Social Welfare Department, to the magnitude of 10 times in the 2000s (Law, 2009).

One of the possible reasons for this pattern would be the introduction of the Lump Sum Grant system in 2001 that had exerted considerable pressure upon the NGO workers in meeting service requirements in both quantity and quality. This new funding mode has adversely affected the job satisfaction and morale of social work practitioners precipitated by the constellation of such challenges as inadequate resources, heavy workload, long working hours, high staff turnover within agency, and job insecurity (Lai and Chan, 2009).

A local study (Lee, 2008; cited in Lai and Chan, 2009) reveals that job satisfaction is correlated to job security among social workers. Amongst the 1,077 social workers surveyed, those having permanent terms of employment or holding more senior positions indicated higher levels of job satisfaction. The introduction of competitive bidding and contracting of services has resulted in the instability of services as well as job insecurity. Such a situation echoes overseas findings that
lower job satisfaction amongst social workers would result in a higher turnover rate (Barak et al., 2001). In turn, high turnover of social workers would adversely affect service quality and elicit service recipients' dissatisfaction (Powell and York, 1992; Fung, 2008).

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