Australia-wide universities experience difficulties in finding suitable social work placements. The 14-week placement in the third and fourth year of the degree can create pressure for already overworked organisations, but also causes financial strain for students. Four Shepparton-based community agencies have collaborated with La Trobe University, Shepparton campus, to consider innovative new approaches to the traditional placement model, based on a pilot from the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.
The four agencies involved, collectively known as Shepparton Community Share, are FamilyCare, Primary Care Connect, The Bridge Youth Service and ConnectGV. All four organisations have embraced an internship pilot that addresses key issues concerning the social work workforce in regional Australia:
- Developing the professional capacity of students from the classroom to employment in response to the rapidly evolving environment.
- Providing exposure to the breadth of opportunities in the child and family services sector, beyond field education.
- Providing opportunities for social work master students to be financially stable whilst gaining workforce experience.
A key challenge for the child and family service sector in rural and regional areas, including Greater Shepparton, is the need to attract and retain ‘homegrown’ talent. This is particularly important at a time of rapid reform when practitioners need to be upskilled to respond to new demands. The Future Social Service Institute 2018 report indicates that, over the next five years, health and social services jobs in Victoria are set to grow by 60,000 – placing further pressure on an already stretched system.
The collaboration resulted in a packaged opportunity offering paid internships two days per week starting early in the year, together with an option to complete the final year part-time placement in one of the other agencies mid-year. The aim was to provide students with real-world experience, financial value and partnering for social work capacity building.
After a competitive selection process in February of last year, five final-year students embarked on their internship. Social work placements were challenged by COVID-19, however, at the start of their placement these students were already well into their internship, part of the workforce and could seamlessly start their placement. At the end of their placement, all five students gained employment with Shepparton Community Share agencies.
This year the program has been repeated with three master students entering internships, allowing them to gain experience in the field while they study. As in the 2020 experience, the students are already assured of a placement in the latter half of the year.
Findings from the initial project demonstrated that the internship drives positive change in delivering quality social workers. By creating an improved professional understanding, the pilot makes a difference to the lives of children, young people and their families in Greater Shepparton.
When asked if this was an opportunity they would recommend, one intern said, ‘it is a great way to build confidence without being neck deep in it as a full-time worker’. Other interns reported that after agency staff became familiar with the difference between placement and internship they felt ‘more valued as an intern and [their] opinion was valued’.
The CEOs saw the opportunity to move beyond students feeling temporary and embed interns as employees. Building workforce capacity and going beyond university in teaching what it’s like to be part of an agency provides opportunity to build professional networks and knowledge.
As with any new program there were learnings from promotion to recruitment, and how agencies promote an internship to staff as different from placement, but these will continue to develop in the next iterations.
A full report of the Internship Evaluation will be up on the Shepparton Community Share, accessible from June 2021: www.primarycareconnect.com.au/shepparton-community-share