Did you know that the field of social and community service work started as a movement to reduce poverty and inequality? Workers in this field help address pressing social issues like oppression, mental health, discrimination, domestic violence, unemployment and poverty. This month, we celebrated social & community service work month, and dedicate this article to exploring the critical role regulated career colleges play in training and producing more community service workers (CSWs) in Ontario.
The profession of social and community service work in Ontario emerged in the 1960’s. The need to provide social services grew out of an ever increasingly complex social welfare system that was expanding throughout Ontario at the time, and qualified practitioners became key in making sure communities had access to them.
Under the National Occupation Classification (NOC) 4212, Social and Community Service Work is a designation espousing skilled workers who administer and implement a variety of social assistance programs and community services, and assist clients to deal with personal and social problems. They are employed by social service and government agencies, mental health agencies, group homes, shelters, substance abuse centres, school boards, correctional facilities and other establishments. Community service workers play a hands-on part in helping at-risk people get their lives back on track. Like social workers, CSWs interview clients, arrange treatment programs, and provide counselling. A key difference is that CSWs don’t make diagnoses or provide psychotherapy, and their training takes much less time.
Within a year of beginning their program, the CSW grads from Computek College – a career college in the GTA boasting impressive CSW program completion rates as high as 100% in the past few years – go on to give back to their communities by working at local community centers such as the YMCA, Central Toronto Youth Services, Ontario Heroes Health and Social Services, Muslim Welfare Centre, Community Living centers and Agincourt Community Services Association, to name just a few places in the Greater Toronto Area. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that these community-oriented students have also channelled their passion for helping others by serving as Pandemic Workers at the Toronto Pearson Airport at the height of the COVID pandemic.
As demonstrated in the results of last year’s sectoral impact study, those pursuing programs at regulated career colleges are more often than not, goal-oriented, mature, students with previous post-secondary and work experience. These characteristics create distinctively purpose-driven students, who have the drive to pursue condensed and often intensive course loads in order to attain their diploma and hit the ground running. Armed with life experiences that shape their dedication and compassion, these students are unique in what they seek to achieve. Let’s step away from the GTA and take a quick trip to Ottawa to meet Henry Maxwell, a student who enrolled in Willis College’s Addictions Counseling and Community Services Worker program a few years ago:
For roughly two decades, Henry has been a client of Bruce House, a group residence for people living with HIV. For a portion of his life, Henry has struggled with childhood trauma and PTSD, and as a result addiction, eviction and imprisonment. When Henry was released from prison a little over 10 years ago, he began to make courageous steps towards transforming his life.
Henry’s path led him toward a postsecondary education at Willis College’s Addictions Counseling and Community Services Worker program. Henry arrived at Willis College dedicated to paying forward what was given to him and obtain knowledge that would give voice to his own life experiences.
“Sometimes a student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student,” writes Stephen Rowntree, an instructor at Willis College. “A day didn’t go by that Henry didn’t share his life experience with the class; the students enriched by his honesty, humour and empathy for those so often left behind.”
Henry graduated the program as valedictorian. He currently works for the Ottawa Public Health Harm Reduction Program and is on the board of Bruce House.
It’s not difficult to see why students like Henry would opt for a regulated career college education in lieu of a public college education. The answer is: time. At Willis College, Henry had the chance to channel his drive and dedication to acquire the requisite skills needed to give back to his community in just one year.
As we focus on the recovery of a pandemic-scarred economy and contend with record high labour shortages across the country, the need for reconceptualizing past ways rooted in tradition is now more pressing than ever.
Mental health and addictions issues are on the rise as we emerge from a challenging past few years of pandemic living. In fact, Mental health providers say demand for their services has surged in the wake of the pandemic, with long wait lists, few affordable options and therapists stretched increasingly thin. The co-executive director of the London, Ont., CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services said many providers are overwhelmed and their staff continue to work despite increasing risk of burnout. A poll conducted by CAMH saw a quarter of all Ontarians seeking mental health support.
It’s not just in the realm of mental health and addictions that the province could use more skilled workers. Ontario home care providers say the same factors leading to staffing shortages throughout the workforce have left the Ontario home care sector in crisis as well. And let’s not forget – the labour crisis isn’t unique to Ontario. In Nova Scotia, a shortage of child welfare staff this year is keeping parents who have lost custody of their children from seeing them during supervised visits.
At a critical time, post-pandemic, when so much of our communities’ recovery relies on the work that social and community service workers do, it is imperative that we do more to ensure there is a strong social and community workers sector with qualified graduates helping to alleviate stresses on the system.
Despite the purpose-driven and compassionate nature of graduates such as the Computek students serving at Pearson Airport during the pandemic or Henry Maxwell overcoming incredible challenges to serve others, a series of barriers continues to place career college graduates on a secondary tier, and have hindered many graduates from the opportunity to pursue career paths in this field available to their peers in publicly funded institutions. This exacerbates the issues in critical sectors where there is room for more help and service provision to bolster the supply-starved workforce in our communities.
As a vital sector, we have always been ready and able to develop programs and curricula to address rapidly changing and shifting workforce demand. In recent years especially, we highlighted the agility and nimbleness with which our sector can pivot, and how it can harness technology and innovation to improve efficiency with ease. We demonstrated that regulated career colleges are an effective way to prepare for economic instability by providing upskilling and reskilling options. We have continued to grow and develop the shift in postsecondary education from traditional institutions that are publicly funded to a more nimble and agile ideology that focuses on how students learn and what works best for them. As a society, we must face our collective and oftentimes inexplicable aversion to expedited processes when it comes to post-secondary education.
The regulated career college sector in Ontario has always been exemplary in its commitment to quality programming and adhering to strict regulatory standards. By overlooking the immense reservoir of this sector’s institutional capacity, knowledge and track record of training successful skilled workers, we are truly robbing Ontario and Canada’s workforce of a much-needed injection of skilled labour supply.