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UPDATED: December 19, 2011 NO. 51 DECEMBER 22, 2011
Being 'Social Engineers'
As demand for social service soars, the government takes measures to train more qualified workers

A WARM HOME: Chen Lei, a social worker from Jianghan University in Hubei Province, draws pictures with a child at a rescue center for vagrant minors on September 1 (CHENG MIN)

Liu Siting is always busy in her local community, collecting sanitation fees, putting up notices and explaining garbage-sorting ideas.

The 22-year-old college graduate is a social worker based in a residential community in Beijing's Chaoyang District. She is one of the 1,000 new social workers recruited by the Beijing Municipal Government in July.

"It's really not an easy job, due to a lack of helping hands. I often have to work overtime to get my jobs done," Liu said.

According to Liu, during the less than half a year, she has witnessed two of her colleagues abandoned social service jobs for more lucrative alternatives.

"It's the poor salary that drove them away," Liu said. "Our monthly salary is 2,600 yuan ($380.67), which is barely enough to live comfortably in Beijing."

Liu herself spends 800 yuan ($117.13) a month and shares an apartment with two friends.

In order to address the problem facing Liu and her counterparts, 18 central government agencies released a joint statement in early November, announcing a series of preferential treatments in hopes of attracting more people to engage in social service.

"With rapid economic development and great social changes, it has become more difficult for government departments to respond to all social affairs effectively and efficiently. Professional social workers are urgently needed to help these government departments better serve the people," said Xu Yongxiang, Dean of the Social and Public Administration School of the Shanghai-based East China University of Science and Technology.

An established profession

For the first time, the joint statement gives an official definition of "social worker," who is said to be "a professional employee with special knowledge and skills, who provides social service in areas such as general welfare, community relations, marriage and first aid, among others."

"The concept of social service is still new to China. It was first introduced only two decades ago," Xu said. "Before that, there was no social service in a modern sense in China, and the government, as well as state-owned enterprises and institutions, manage all social affairs."

Starting in 1978 when China adopted the policy of reform and opening up, the country's economy experienced rapid expansion and a new set of social problems developed. As a response to the fast changing situation, a class of dedicated professional social workers started to emerge.

In 1988, the Ministry of Education granted approval to a number of universities to begin teaching social service. In 1991, the China Association of Social Workers was established. In 1992, China joined the International Federation of Social Workers.

In the 1990s, the Shanghai Municipal Government began to assign professional social workers to schools, communities and hospitals. Then the city passed legislation that endorsed the employment of professional social workers to deal with issues such as drug abuse, domestic violence and juvenile delinquency.

"Following Shanghai's suit, social workers began to find their way to other Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Guangzhou in southern Guangdong Province," Xu said. "But social service was not recognized as a profession until very recently."

In 2003, the Shanghai Municipal Government released a circular, firstly listing social service among the recognized professions. The circular stipulated that persons aspiring to be social workers must pass a test and register with civil affairs authorities.

In February of that year, China's first non-profit professional social service agency, Lequn Service, was established in Shanghai.

Under a contract signed between the Pudong New District Government and Lequn Service, the government would pay Lequn 100,000 yuan ($14,641) annually for its psychological counseling and other services to students and teachers of six local primary schools.

In 2005, the former Ministry of Labor recognized social service as a profession. In June 2008, China launched its first examination for social worker certification.

In 2009, big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in Guangdong began recruiting college graduates to serve as social workers in local communities.

"Social workers are recognized as being on par with other professionals such as engineers, scientists, lawyers and so forth in terms of being a 'professional technical position,'" Xu said.

As the status of social service has risen, more college graduates have started stepping into the profession. Inspired by new recruitment policies, 360,000 candidates sat the social service exam in Beijing this year, competing for only 1,000 vacant positions.

Part of the attraction for those taking the exam was that social workers recruited through the examination will be able to get the coveted Beijing hukou (registered permanent residence) after two consecutive years of work.

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