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Graduates Take Career Path Less Traveled

Graduates Take Career Path Less Traveled
Florence Chung with Los Angeles Police Department Captain James Miller

As the senior specialist of government and community partnerships in the assets protection division of Target Corp., Florence Chung MSW ’04 has a high-pressure job. She often travels in and out of the state building relationships with key individuals in law enforcement agencies and nonprofit public safety organizations.

With all that she does at this Fortune 500 company, many may find it surprising that Chung is a social worker. In her corporate position, she uses the skills learned in classrooms at the USC School of Social Work and the internships available to her through its master of social work program.

“Interpersonal and relationship-building skills are what I use every day on the job,” Chung said. “Social workers are just really good at understanding human nature and being able to figure out the root causes as to why things are happening.”

Traditionally, the image of a social worker often involves protecting children or assisting vulnerable groups such as the elderly. This preconceived notion is not far off from the truth. In fact, most people who go into the social work profession have a strong desire to improve people’s lives.

Although it may be difficult to tell by her title, that’s exactly what Chung is doing. Her responsibility at Target is to build relationships to help make communities – albeit communities near Target store locations – safer. Such communities improve the quality of life for those in them.

Chung is one of many social workers with nontraditional jobs. And in an economy in which the unemployment rate has reached record highs, the USC School of Social Work wants to expand the market for social workers by helping to link companies with MSW students and graduates who possess skills that would be advantageous in everyday business operations.

Carrie Lew, director of professional development and alumni relations, has been working with career consultant J. Juan Macias MSW ’02 to develop internships and jobs in companies and departments that may not ordinarily hire graduate-level social workers.

So far, the two have met with more than 60 decision-makers at companies in a variety of different industries, including finance, insurance and managed care. One of the biggest challenges, Macias said, is explaining to executives what social workers do and how their transferable skills can satisfy their organization’s needs.

“We have to educate and dispel the preconceived notions of what social workers are trained to do,” Macias said.

In the meetings, Lew and Macias start with an overview of the company and then they explain how social workers can be an asset.

“Social workers are catalysts who utilize their extensive knowledge of human behavior, motivation and interpersonal relationships to identify and understand personal and organizational needs or challenges,” Lew said. “We are problem-solvers, and we’re great at assessing problems and managing relationships within organizations.”

At the end of the meetings, Lew and Macias leave the managers and executives with two documents.

One describes the transferable skills that social workers possess and a broad definition of social work; the other is a list of examples of nontraditional jobs held by MSW graduates.

The list includes the senior director of player development for pro football’s Detroit Lions, a U.S. senator, a member of Congress, a vice president of business development for Accredited Home Health and a senior director of employee and organizational development for the California Institute of Technology.

The school’s administration hopes that in response to these meetings, jobs and internships will be created for graduates or hiring managers will realize that social workers can be moved into existing positions. However, given the current state of the economy, that may be too much to ask of some companies at the moment, Macias said. But the idea of developing internships for MSW students is catching on, he added.

Lew and Macias have solidified an internship with Wells Fargo’s elder services department. The intern will help support the department’s effort to provide “a comprehensive set of financial, personal and life management services to help clients maintain their independence and quality of life.”

Verizon has expressed interest in exploring an internship in its Southern California government and external affairs department to help support philanthropic, legislative and client services efforts. Other companies considering social work interns are Kaiser Permanente, AltaMed Health Services and USC’s talent acquisition department.

While attempting to find nontraditional jobs for graduates, Lew and Macias also are trying to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs. This includes career development workshops to build on transferable skills, individualized coaching sessions to help students secure internship or job placements and working with faculty and administration to incorporate key competency needs of companies into the curriculum.

Areas identified include budgeting and finance, as well as marketing and strategic planning, which currently are only offered in the coursework for students in the Community Organization, Planning and Administration concentration.

Nontraditional jobs can be a hard sell for companies, but some students also may be a bit reluctant to make the change. Chung certainly was.

After years of thinking she would make a career out of providing direct services to at-risk youth, taking a nontraditional social work job was a tough decision.

“I had to find some way in my head to connect it to social work,” she said. “However, the more time I spend in a corporate business environment, the more it becomes clear to me what an asset social workers can be to companies wanting to pursue corporate social responsibility.”

The USC School of Social Work is believed to be the only social work program in California providing specialized career services for students.

Macias conducted an informal assessment of 20 schools of social work in California, including UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley and several state university programs. He discovered that these programs primarily provide students with lists of job openings as well as career counseling.

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