Methods: We used cross-lagged structural equation modeling and data collected at two points in time, one year apart, to study MSW graduates that were novice social work practitioners in China. The data comes from the 212 novice social work practitioners who were in a social work profession and had graduated from an MSW program (80.2% were female; with a mean age at T1 of 25.89, SD = 2.31; 73.1% had a BSW background at T1; 53.8% were working in social work agencies at T2, and 40.6% had frontline work experience at T2).
The data were analyzed using statistical software SPSS and SPSS Amos version 24. We adopted Anderson and Gerbing’ s (1988) two-step analytic strategy, with latent variable modeling in which measurement model analyses precede the structural relationship analyses. A cross-lagged structural equation modeling was used to analyze the relationship between variables. All analyses were based on latent constructs.
Results: We found a positive cross-lagged relationship between the respondents’ professional competence and professional awareness (precisely professional identity and perceived professional environment). Their professional competence had a positive effect on professional awareness; however, the professional awareness has no significant impact on the professional competence (professional identity at T1 → professional competence at T2: β = -0.13, p = .111, perceived professional environment → professional competence at T2: β = 0.09, p = .298).
Further, the frontline work experience could strengthen cross-lagged relationships between professional competence at T1 and perceived professional environment at T2. The positive effect of the relationship between social workers’ professional competence at T1 and their perceived professional environment was twice as strong among the frontline social workers (β = 0.242***) as it was for those who were not working in frontline positions (β = 0.091*). However, the boundary conditions of a BSW and of working in social work agencies played no moderating role.
Implications: The study’s cross-lagged model examined the longer-term effects of professional competence on professional identity and the perceived professional environment. We found that professional competence derived from MSW training can help social workers maintain competence and develop professional awareness longer term; this suggests that competency-based education brings positive spillover effects while developing professional competence. Considering the results of boundary condition testing, we believe that when advocating for competency-based education, social work educators and policymakers should promote the distinction between the levels of competence development gained from the BSW and those from the MSW and formulate differentiated educational goals. Simultaneously, our identification of frontline experience as a moderator under certain conditions exposes how to extend a competency-based profession.