STEVEN STRITT was a college senior about to collect a degree in printing-production management when he had second thoughts about his career plans.
"I went from wanting to make money to wanting to have a job that meant something," he says. Several years after graduation, Mr. Stritt began doing volunteer work with inner-city children and then became a substance-abuse counselor. He is now in his first year of a master's degree program in social work at the University of California at Berkeley.
Stritt is one of a rapidly growing number of people seeking careers in human services. After taking a huge dive during the early and middle part of the 1980s, filed applications to schools of social work in the United States are surging.
"Enrollments are growing both part and full time," says Donald Beless, executive director of the Council on Social Work Education. "It's certainly not a little blip."
During the past three to four years, applications filed to the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles have increased 75 percent; the figure is 80 percent at Boston University's School of Social Work. The University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration reports a 40 percent jump every year since about 1988.
Professors of social work can offer only theories on why so many people want to gain admission to these programs. "I think that for a lot of young people, the 20-somethings ... the business field that at the beginning of the '80s looked like a field of endless opportunities now looks like a field fraught with lots of threats and risks," says Rino Patti, dean of USC's School of Social Work. "People who at one time thought business was a place to go are now pondering that."
Karen Wall, admissions director at Boston University's School of Social Work, says many of BU's applicants are career changers who have worked in business for 15 or 20 years and are now taking the opportunity to pursue an area where many have always held an interest.
And Jeanne Marsh, dean of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, says: "We're entering into a period when there's a growing concern of social issues and a growing sense that we've neglected issues that have to do with the development of human resources ... job prospects are very good."
Indeed, employment of social workers is expected to rise faster than average employment for all occupations between 1990 and 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"In California, the county welfare departments can't staff people with MSWs [master's degrees in social work] fast enough in response to the growing trend in child abuse," Dean Patti says.
While some universities have become more selective in whom they admit, others are expanding their programs and creating additional places for students. In 1987, for instance, 23,285 students were enrolled in MSW programs. By 1991, that number had swelled to 29,700. During the same period, applications filed for first-year programs increased from 21,581 to 33,461.
Eighty-five percent of social-work students are women, and the average age is 30, Mr. Beless says. Master's degrees provide the most flexible career opportunities: The pay they enable the holder to earn is usually better, and more jobs are available to him or her.
Many in the field hope that the Clinton administration will put a higher priority on dealing with social problems and thus create more job opportunities for social workers in the public sector. That is where the greatest need is, says Harry Specht, dean of the School of Social Welfare at UC/Berkeley. Dr. Specht, however, says the trend has been for students to take up the more lucrative private practice of psychotherapy.
"If there are increased enrollments which five, 10 years down the line means there are more social workers in the private practice of psychotherapy, I think the community has been hornswoggled," he says. "They're not dealing with the poor minority groups in the urban core. They're dealing with white middle-class professionals, 20 to 40 years old, who I would characterize as the worried well."
IN an effort to steer students toward careers in public service, many schools are developing closer partnerships with public agencies.
"There's a rediscovery in social-work education of the importance of preparing students to work in publicly supported social services with the most low-income, most at-risk, most vulnerable populations," Patti says.
Stritt, who plans to work in child welfare after he graduates, is well aware of the problems out there. "The system is just overwhelmed," he says. "The scope of social problems is so large, at least in California, that social workers can't really address problems like they need to be addressed."