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I can’t help being cynical when my future is in the hands of uncontrollable forces | Michelle Lim | Australia news

4 min read


Name: Michelle Lim

Age: 23

Dreams of: Being a social worker

Last month, I sat in my course’s “town hall” forum on Zoom. It was just an open forum hosted by social work faculty staff about 2021 and the arrangements for this year. I was really only interested in one section of information: placements.

Even before starting my semester at the end of August last year, I’d already heard about reduced work placements for social work students. The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) sets the industry standard for placement hours for students to be accredited as a social worker. A thousand hours is the standard but because of Covid-19, they’ve lowered it to 800 hours. But I’ve heard some students are struggling to meet even this because agencies won’t accept students anymore. I’ve also found out that some students do their placements online, which I’m not sure is the same as doing a placement physically.

Semester one in 2021 is going to be online. This means all the induction and pre-placement work that I’m supposed to complete will be done online. The open forum and placement information materials online say that I may not be guaranteed a placement because of priority for graduating students and that I may have to defer. I can’t afford to defer. Deferring means that I would graduate by 2023, and that’s assuming I can get a full-time placement. I don’t want to have to rely on Centrelink when I’m in my mid 20s or live at home without a steady income.

What drew me to social work was the possibility of a full-time job at the end of the degree. I’ve heard that social work and services is a growing industry and that there’s always work in this field. Now with reduced placement hours, it feels like the attraction – and security – is fading.

I went to a social work end-of-year drinks with a bunch of graduating students in mid-December, and I asked them how job hunting was. Some got offers, some were still looking. They told me the job market wasn’t looking good; one told me she had secured a job but was on probation for six months.

My biggest fear is that when I do get my first job, I’ll screw up because of my lack of experience. This wouldn’t be just a project deadline that I missed, or a typo on a document. I would be dealing with people’s lives, and their problems and wellbeing. What if I misjudged or incorrectly assessed someone and I led them to a worse-off place? What if my inexperience is because of a lack of a meaningful placement opportunity?

With the new degree costs kicking in this year, I worry what it’d be like for the future pool of graduates and myself. The government is discouraging those to enter degrees that are considered “irrelevant” and noncompetitive for the future job market. If I started university in 2021 or 2022, I wouldn’t be able to afford the arts degree in international relations that I have. I have no interest in Stem or anything of the like, nor am I good at it. The federal government is making decisions they think is best for the future, but they’re stifling opportunities for young people.

This series is called Dreams interrupted, and I’m telling you dreams will be interrupted when this policy is enacted. Instead of making tertiary education accessible for everyone, it’s only available to the few who can afford it. There’s a tinge of fatalism that jobs will be difficult to come by for those with just an arts degree. But we don’t do an arts degree for a job, we do it because we’re passionate about what we’re studying. I’m lucky that I enjoy my social work degree, and even luckier that it offers work placement. Being able to pivot to a different field is a luxury that not many young people can afford.

Since the last time I wrote, I’ve applied for a number of jobs in social services. I fit the selection criteria, but my resume is only filled with volunteering and leadership experience. Nothing paid. They say volunteering is best when you can’t find paid work, but it doesn’t feel like that. Stacking shelves at a supermarket seems more impressive than volunteering at Red Cross to employers. I sound cynical, but I guess one can’t help being cynical when your future lies in the hands of others and uncontrollable forces.

So far my optimism about securing a job depletes when I open a dreaded email of rejection. It’s difficult to find solace in an email which says you were incompatible with the requirements when you had thought that you were the perfect fit. Just like a steam engine, it’ll take a bit time to recover from the wounds of rejection but when I do, it’ll be full steam ahead.

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