If you’re reading this and hold a master of social work degree, it’s very likely that you had to complete an unpaid field placement or internship to earn it. I was considered lucky to receive a $1,000 stipend for my yearlong field placement, though that didn’t begin to cover the gas to drive the 258 miles weekly to the organization.
It didn’t feel fair then, and it doesn’t feel fair now that I was not compensated for the therapy services I provided to children and their families 24 hours every week for a year. Yes, my placement gave me valuable, real world experience, but it also contributed to my school debt (an ongoing monthly impact to my family) and made me feel exploited and undervalued.
This feeling was compounded by the expectation that professionals in our field are underpaid and work beyond their capacity because the work just has to get done! This belief starts before you even graduate, and it can take many years to reach a salary that reflects the valuable and critical work social workers do everyday! And some never do.
I’m in no way denying there are many complicated sides to the debate of whether or not graduate students should be paid during their masters-level field placements. Most recently, this has been a hot debate topic, and there are currently not one, but two related legislative proposals up for consideration in Michigan. MSW students have also taken up the call for advocacy with campaigns like Payments for Placements (P4P), which now has 14 chapters across the country.
With a team of almost all MSW graduates, Emergence Collective believes unpaid labor in field placements is intertwined with systemic inequities within the sector. Social workers at all levels are underpaid and overworked, often leading to burnout and decreased quality of services. The sector is also facing a crisis from workforce shortages and the high cost of turnover as folks leave the field or move away from direct service work.
All of these challenges are rooted in the complexities of an inequitable capitalist system that places little value on the financial and moral worth of our work. While some aspects of this system are out of our control, it’s not hard to connect how we perpetuate a scarcity mindset and low esteem of social work early on in the journey when we require students to provide many hours of free labor.
As a field placement site, we’d like to share our approach to graduate student field placements and stipends in the hopes that we can hear from others about their perspectives and experiences. Before we do, we’d like to name an assumption in our process and acknowledge that our approach isn’t applicable to all field sites.
EC has the ability to offer the placement to graduate students with strong professional experience, which brings a healthy balance between training/supervision and independent work. While we do not see field students as employees, we do see them as valuable contributing members of our team. They bring a fresh perspective that enhances our partner-facing work, and they contribute to important conversations about company values and business practices.
We would be remiss to not acknowledge that we do save money by using field placement support. Beyond providing stipends we hope to balance the value we receive by working alongside our students to achieve a meaningful experience that practically applies to their future careers.
With that being said, the reality is that not all students admitted into MSW programs have existing strong professional skills. We have heard from some colleagues at other field placement sites that they invest significant time training and supervising these students in a context of already stretched capacity, which can be very challenging. What can MSW programs do (at the time of program acceptance or during student placements) to ensure organizations are not overburdened? In line with this question, our team considers how equity aligns with our approach in terms of ensuring students who have not had the opportunity to build prior skills are also able to access our field placement.
While we continue to experiment with different approaches, here is our current approach:
HR: Our placement is considered a 'paid internship.' Students are not considered independent contractors or employees.
Framing: We introduce students as “graduate students” or “MSW student who is doing their field education at EC” to describe their role. We don't use the term “employee” nor are students considered employees.
Transparency: We share the stipend and pay schedule in the interview process and articulate how we view students’ important role on our team and our approach to field education. This has been helpful to set the tone and make the distinction between employment and graduate-level fieldwork.
Stipend: Each semester we provide a stipend of $3,600 or $5,400 depending on the credit hours of the semester. We are happy to share more about how we calculate this amount if you're interested or trying to develop an approach for your own agency.
EC shares this approach humbly, recognizing it’s not perfect and also how difficult it is for many organizations to provide stipends, especially given the difficult climate of funding and workforce shortages. We would love to continue this conversation with you regardless of where you stand in this debate. If you’re interested in talking more, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and EC will reach out to you! If you’re interested in learning more about P4P, visit this link.