In providing counselling and practical support for individuals and families, they will deal with a wide cross-section of the community and be trained to help them through the problems thrown up by urban life.
At different times, this can involve handling everything from child welfare and spousal abuse cases to sorting out housing needs, or helping recent immigrants and ethnic minorities integrate more quickly. It can also mean working alongside the police and emergency services to support victims of such incidents as the Manila hostage crisis or this year's building collapse in Mau Tau Wai Road.
"It is a very meaningful job, but also tough because you are always under pressure," says Tam Kwan-ping, social work officer attached to two integrated family service centres in the New Territories. "Therefore, you need to have a sense of mission to want to help people and enhance the well-being of society. You also need good EQ [emotional quotient] and to be mentally strong in order to care enough for others, while remaining suitably detached, otherwise you can easily burn out."
Other essential qualities, she notes, include good analytical and communication skills, and being flexible and sensitive to circumstances. Patterns and problems in the community continue to change, with factors such as the increasing divorce rate, cross-border marriages and the higher incidence of drug use. As a result, social workers must be ready to contend with new demands and attitudes.
"We are constantly required to review the needs of the community and realign our services," says Winnie Lau, departmental secretary of the Social Welfare Department. "We adjust where necessary to strengthen support and collaborate with NGOs [non-governmental organisations], in areas such as family services and mental wellness."
New recruits, Lau explains, receive extensive training and follow a well-defined career. After a comprehensive induction that acquaints them with the work of the department and government machinery, they get further job-specific training and continuing support from their supervisors.
Initial assignments are most likely with an integrated family service centre or a medical social services unit. The work there involves learning about the different social work interventions, becoming familiar with general casework settings, assessing clients' needs, and taking on some of the more straightforward cases.
Each newcomer also has an experienced mentor to offer advice, plus emotional and career support.
"The professional training is very structured and, as you move up, will also include managerial courses," Lau says. "There are a lot of challenges, but you can derive real job satisfaction. What we look for is a commitment to public service."
Other key requirements are a relevant degree, or accepted equivalent, registration as a social worker, and proficiency in Chinese and English. This is important because as one moves on, there will be the need to perform some statutory duties and to contribute to the development of policy or planning of welfare services.
Lau notes that the deadline for online applications is on Monday. The timeline for the recruitment exercise should then see invitations for interviews going out by December and job offers sent in April or May next year.
"Normally, we do not apply short-listing criteria," Lau says. "The interview is the main thing and we try to see all qualified candidates. We also accept applications from undergraduates, so final-year students are welcome to apply."
She adds that the remuneration package is considered attractive, but social work officers earn it through hard work. "The salary and job security may be good, but if you don't like the nature of the work, it will be hard to go on," Tam says. "When you join, it can be tough. Therefore, you have to be clear about what you really want from your career and it certainly helps to have a good personal support network."
- The social work officer grade has seven ranks and a clear career path from entry-level up to deputy director of social welfare
- Salaries for junior rank assistant social work officers range from HK$22,005 to HK$48,670
- Recruits are eligible for standard civil service terms covering annual pay increments, medical benefits and leave entitlements