Abstract: Bridging the Gap between International Social Work Training and Practice (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Bridging the Gap between International Social Work Training and Practice

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Tamara Sussman, PhD, Associate Professor, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Hanna Kim, MSW, Ph.D. Student, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Mohammad Khan, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba, MB, Canada
Sara Khan, PhD, Adjunct Professor, McGill University, QC
Background and Purpose: Students across diverse professional disciplines are progressively more inclined to engage in practice and advocacy beyond national borders. Amongst these disciplines are social workers, for whom the pursuit of social justice is a core tenant of professional practice. It should come as no surprise then, that international social work is a growing area of interest for students graduating from social work programs in Canada and the U.S. (Payne & Askeland, 2016). North American schools have responded to social workers’ potential contributions to international work, and the growing demand for this area of social work practice, by significantly increasing the number of internationally focused courses and field experiences (Kachachishvili, 2015; Khan & Sussman, 2015). Yet, despite this growth in demand, there exists little empirical work examining the compatibility between employer expectations for knowledge, value and skills and educational training offered in schools of social work.

Methods: Redressing this knowledge gap, this explanatory sequential mixed methods study used the combination of an on-line survey with currently practicing international social workers from North American Universities (N=44) and key informant semi-structured interviews with international social work educators and leaders (N=6) to: (1) identify the alignment between the knowledge, values, and skills taught in MSW programs and expected by international employers and; (2) explore how social work training experiences impact those working in the field of international social work.

Results: Our on-line survey results identified a number of important gaps between MSW training provided and international employer expectations. Most notably knowledge of international treaties and conventions, expertise working in high conflict areas, culturally relevant policy development, analysis and implementation, communicating with the press and high media officials, grant writing, and financial management/fundraising were seen as critically important to employers and sorely missing from current social work training programs. Results of our online survey further suggested disparities between knowledge bases and skills taught versus expected (knowledge taught: M=18.1,SD=5.2 vs. expected M=21.4, SD=4.6; skills taught :M=31.3, SD=8.8 vs expected M=39.4; SD=5.9). These mean differences were not only statistically significant ( knowledge [t (36) =3.4, p<.001]; skill [t (33) =5.6, p<.001]) but they were also pedagogically meaningful.

Our key informant interviews affirmed that knowledge and skills related to macro practice were both sorely missing and highly valued for international work. As a result, the unique social work lens which prioritizes reflexivity and social justice was rendered invisible by prospective employers who instead thought of social work as a largely micro based profession.

Conclusions & Implications: This exploratory sequential mix-methods study revealed a number of knowledge and skills gaps related to macro practice between the training provided in MSW program and that expected of international employers. In light of these findings, a number of key recommendations are suggested in an effort to reclaim macro knowledge and skills within the social work curriculum and carve a prominent space on the global stage.