February 2020
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"Healthcare is an important place to practice and elevate the role of social work. Poor, queer, Black, Indigenous and racialized peoples face health disparities - social workers, especially those from communities that face marginalization, have a valuable perspective and role in addressing the social determinants of health and advocating for access to care..."
Mapping the Colour-Coded Labour Market in Social Work Field Education
“Ontario’s labour market is increasingly racialized and persistently unequal” (p. 4) summarize Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzi in their 2018 report, Persistent Inequality: Ontario’s Colour-coded Labour Market . This report analyzed 2016 census data to reveal striking racial and gender inequalities in work in Ontario. For example, the report found that racialized women are most likely to be employed within lowest-paying occupations. F or every dollar earned by white men, racialized men earned 76 cents while racialized women earn only 58 cents. Finally, the report found that race and gender-based inequalities persist into future generations of racialized immigrants: for every dollar earned by white men, second-generation racialized men 78 cents while second generation racialized women earned only 64 cents. [1] Persistent Inequality points to the “uncomfortable truth” of a labour market that is segregated by race and gender. [2] Although social work prides itself for its commitment to social justice, the profession is but a microcosm of our larger society. What does Ontario’s labour market look like in the field of social work? Further, how is social work field education, which is increasingly linked to paid employment by students [3] and placement sites, [4] implicated in the colour-coded labour market for social work?

Social work field education, with a backdrop of an eroding welfare state and ever-expanding social work education programs, is increasingly characterized by scarcity and competition. [5] In this article, I draw from my personal experiences as well as findings from an original research project to map out how the colour-coded labour market shapes the coordination of field education for racialized students. I discuss how current practices disadvantage racialized social work students. I conclude with recommendations to support equitable access to field education and employment in social work.

My Entry Point

“Your placement with [agency name] has been confirmed,” reads a late December email that I received from my school of social work’s field education department. In reading this email, I considered the work I did as a student in obtaining a placement. This included: formulating skills and learning objectives to strategically fill out placement application forms; attending interview and résumé workshops organized by my school of social work; writing out cover letters and résumés; networking and making cold calls to investigate field education prospects at placement sites; participating in interviews and organizing work references; and finally, awaiting responses from placement sites.

As a student working to obtain a placement, I found myself navigating competing priorities, which included my goal of securing a placement in healthcare and the school’s task of placing all students. This work occurred within a broader context where funding cuts to social and healthcare services contributed to limited placement opportunities. Furthermore, expanding social work programs as well as affiliation agreements between universities and placement sites heightened competition between students and schools of social work, with certain schools having monopoly over coveted sites at hospitals, children’s mental health organizations, and school boards. [6] These tensions manifested themselves in instances in which I was encouraged to explore placements at ethno-racial settings that were not necessarily related to my goals for field education. Other racialized students described navigating puzzling subtexts in which they were prioritized to undesirable practice settings that appeared to be marked by race and other social categories.

These experiences prompted me to explore how field education is coordinated for racialized social work students in my practice-based research paper for my master’s degree of social work (MSW). To complete this research, I immersed myself into the local setting of one school of social work in Southern Ontario. This school had a strong value for social justice in its mission statement and attracts a diverse student body, including racialized, newcomer, and queer students. As part of the research, I interviewed five racialized students who were enrolled in the school of social work as well as a student education coordinator at a hospital located in the same city as the school. [7]

Finding 1: A Colour-Coded Labour Market in Social Work Field Education

One of the first things I learned from the students was that they were all well aware of racialized hierarchies in social work field education. Moreover, students had a sense of what these hierarchies in field education meant for their future employment pathways. In the following passage, Eric, a racialized social worker and MSW student, explains the social relations that underpin both the social work labour market and field education:

The majority of management positions or social work positions that are considered as higher paid, such as the hospital or school board, are composed as typically white and female. And, I’m just wondering, what will be the minority social worker’s position and what the future will be in this field, right? As an MSW student, I’m quite interested because usually the placement is the first step we get into the real world. So basically, your placement is a good predictor of what you’re going to do in the future, whether you’re going to stay in the community level, or hospital setting, or school board. It’s quite interesting to compare the racialized students and the white students, the difference, the different placements they have, and, maybe after five or ten years, let’s see where they are in the social work field.

Eric describes that a hierarchy based on categories of race, gender, and class exists within social work. He describes that community agencies are marginalized within the labour market – such jobs are devalued, have poor pay, status, and security, and are often held by racialized social workers. Alternatively, Eric points out how hospital and school board placements are associated with higher pay, status, and stability, and are typically held by white female workers. Eric’s account also suggests that the labour market penetrates field education to shape students’ employment pathways as social workers.

Eric’s experiential knowledge reflects what Ontario’s colour-coded labour market looks like for the field of social work. The Ontario Association of Social Worker’s (OASW) 2018 report, A Snapshot of Social Work in Ontario, also establishes that some jobs within social work have better conditions than others. For example, social workers who reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their salaries worked in hospitals while those with the lowest levels of satisfaction worked in community multi-service agencies. The report also found striking differences in terms of access to benefits, with social workers employed in hospitals, school boards, and child welfare settings reporting highest access to extended health and dental insurance, employee assistance programs, and pension plans and group RRSPs while those employed at the community level reporting lower access to such benefits. Interestingly, the Snapshot found that despite higher levels of satisfaction with salary, social workers in hospitals reported lower levels of satisfaction of their role in the workplace while social workers in the community were, overall, satisfied with their role. [8] The report suggest that not all social work jobs are created equal and therefore all placements do not lead to the same career pathways and opportunities. Further, although no mention of racial makeup of participants are made, the OASW’s report paints a hierarchy in the working conditions of social work, which, as per students like Eric, is colour-coded.

Finding 2: Masking the Colour Code through “Fairness”

In speaking with an education coordinator at a hospital, a site that is highly valued by social work stude nts, [9] I learned how affiliation agreements prioritize students from certain schools of social work for field education at these coveted sites. Initially, the coordinator reflects that affiliation agreements ensure that the process of obtaining a placement is “fair”:

We have a big level agreement with one of the schools and the responsibility, first and foremost, is to find those placements for that school … One of the reasons for that is because we don’t want any accusations of bias. Everything is done anonymously… They won’t say one female student who has this name because then accusations of bias could come in later… It can’t be that whoever calls gets a placement. That’s not fair, right?

The coordinator describes that affiliation agreements codifies relationships between schools and placement sites to assure fairness in placement coordination. As expected for a profession committed to social justice, the Canadian Association for Social Work Education similarly states that “the field placement/setting accepts students without discrimination.” [10]
Yet, the coordinator’s actual experiences suggest that fairness, as articulated through these agreements, masks how schools of social work are themselves marked by race:

Well the partnerships, so one of the schools is a partner. So, this sounds bad, but, if you look at the students at the schools, they look different. Like, you can tell … And, I will be very honest with you. That’s how they hire as well. If you graduate, and you’ve done social work placements here, you are far more likely to get a job here. So, I see the way it plays out in who gets to be here, and who doesn’t... Personally, for the location that we are in [a multicultural community], I am shocked at the numbers. They’re not reflective of the communities we serve.

Through a legalistic discourse of fairness, affiliation agreements conceal the inequities behind a coveted placement site partnering with one school that is known to have white students as a majority. Although the hospital does not sort students, the coordinator knows that the partner school’s students will most likely be white. Schools, themselves, are racialized and this is not an unknown fact. Hence, fairness, as it is articulated through affiliation agreements, allows the institution to evade “accusations of bias,” even though most students who complete placements at these sites and are then subsequently hired are white.

Confronting the Colour-Coded Labour Market in Social Work Field Education

Social work field education is situated in a systemic landscape in which race is a central and unavoidable as a marker of status and value. Although policies and affiliation agreements describe field education coordination as a fair process, my experiences and research findings suggest that a colour-coded labour market exists within social work and infiltrates field education. This has implications for the future labour market pathways of racialized social work students.

I did not attend a school with strong affiliation agreements with placement sites. Although I hoped to complete one placement in healthcare, I ended up finishing all three of my placements at community-level sites. After graduation, I worked in the community, where I developed invaluable knowledge and skills in social work practice. I was determined to work in healthcare and eventually secured a position as a social worker in in a long-term care home. I then obtained a casual position in a hospital and later, a contract position in that setting. Although I have recently been offered a permanent position in the hospital, I reflect that I faced labour market inequality as employers have told me that I did not have quite enough experience for a permanent position as my community-level work is not valued in the same way. I notice that hospitals and other coveted sites in social work continue be bastions of whiteness, in which white social workers have relatively smooth and secure placement to labour market pathways after graduation.

Healthcare is an important place to practice and elevate the role of social work. Poor, queer, Black, Indigenous, and racialized peoples face health disparities – social workers, especially those from communities that face marginalization, have a valuable perspective and role in addressing the social determinants of health and advocating for access to care. As a future field instructor, I hope to mentor, learn from, and build space for social work students from diverse backgrounds. I encourage all field instructors and coordinators to confront the colour-coded labour market in field education by using the following recommendations:

  • Notice the racial makeup of the social work students at your practice setting. Who gets to be there? If they are consistently white, ask the school and your practice setting, why?

  • Recognize the value and practice wisdom fostered in community-based practice setting. Honour students and workers with these experiences and make space for them in your practice setting.

  • Be aware as to how institutional partnerships with universities, including affiliation agreements with schools of social work, create placement monopolies that mask racial and other social inequalities. Rethink the use of affiliation agreements and adopt new approaches to provide opportunities to students from schools that are not captured within these contracts.
Footnotes/Works Cited
[1] Block & Galabuzi, 2018
[2] Block & Galabuzi, 2018, p. 19
[3] Ayala, Drolet, Fulton, Hewson, Letkemann, Baynton, Elliot, Judge-Stasiak, Blaug, Gérard Tétreault, & Schweizer, 2018
[4] Srikanthan, 2019
[5] Preston, George, & Silver, 2014
[6] George, Silver, & Preston, 2013; Preston et al., 2014
[7] Srikanthan, 2019
[8] Ontario Association of Social Workers, 2018
[9] Ayala et al., 2018; Srikanthan, 2019
[10] Canadian Association for Social Work Education, 2014, p. 15

Ayala, J., Drolet, J., Fulton, A., Hewson, J., Letkemann, L., Baynton, M., Elliot, G., Judge-
Stasiak, A., Blaug, C., Gérard Tétreault, A., & Schweizer, E. (2018). Field education in crisis: Experiences of field education
coordinators in Canada. Social Work Education, 37 (3), 281-293.
Block, S. & Galabuzi, G. E. (2018). Persistent Inequality: Ontario’s Colour-coded Labour
Market. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from
George, P., Silver, S., & Preston, S. (2013). Reimagining Field Education in Social Work: The
Promise Unveiled. Advances in Social Work, 14 (2), 642-657.
Ontario Association of Social Workers. (2018). A snapshot of social work in Ontario: Key
indicators for sustaining a critical profession. Toronto, ON: Author.
Preston, S., George, P., & Silver, S. (2014). Field Education in Social Work: The Need for
Reimagining, Critical Social Work, 15 (1), 57-72.
Srikanthan, S. (2019). Keeping the Boss Happy: Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Accounts
of the Field Education Crisis. British Journal of Social Work, bcz016, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcz016
Sinthu Srikanthan (MSW, RSW)  is currently both a social worker at Toronto General Hospital's Red Blood Cell Clinic and a qualitative researcher at Youth Research and Evaluation Exchange (YouthREX). She completed both a Bachelors degree of Social Work as well as a Bachelors degree of Arts in Indigenous Studies and Sociology at McMaster University. Sinthu also completed a Masters degree of Social Work at York University. She is passionate about advancing social justice and Anti-Racism through practice, research, and advocacy. 
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