Conceptual Framework: Three conceptual frameworks - (1) occupational closure, (2) education-occupation mismatch, and (3) profession-specific education and training - are introduced to set up a conceptual framework for this study. The theory of occupational closure explains that the social work profession lacks a clear occupational boundary that helps to generate earnings premiums. The education-occupation mismatch hypothesis suggests that the graduates of social science majors that choose social work, not their field of major, for their job may not experience an earnings penalty associated with the education-occupation mismatch. Contrary to these frameworks, the last conceptual framework indicates that profession-specific human capital development is associated with earnings gains. These conflicting predictions make the research question empirically important and particularly intriguing.
Method: Pooling more than 10 years of nationally representative samples of bachelor’s level social workers (N=27,297) from the 2009 through 2019 American Community Surveys, this study estimated, using multivariate regression analyses, the effects of the following 10 most popular undergraduate majors for social workers on their annual earnings: social work, psychology, criminal justice, sociology, business, education, family and consumer science, general liberal arts and English, human services and community organization, and general/interdisciplinary social science.
Results: The results revealed that holding a BSW degree, relative to holding a non-social work degree, is related to a small yet significant earnings premium (of bachelor’s social workers, net of their demographic and employment characteristics as well as geographic and year variations that may have affected their earnings. Contrary to the assumptions of the occupational closure and education-occupation mismatch frameworks, as the profession-specific human capital development framework proposes, a BSW degree appears to be recognized in the labor market for the associated education, training, work experience, as well as skills in applying NASW Codes of Ethics, to various practice settings and groups of clients. The profession-specific education and training in undergraduate social work programs may have contributed to the small yet significant earnings premium for BSW degree holders among bachelor’s social workers.
Conclusions: While the overall findings of this study cast a positive light on social work undergraduate majors, the small size of earnings premium may point out that there remains a need for adequate workforce development for bachelor’s social workers and credential promotion of a BSW degree in the job market.