Jiang Xiaoping, 25, buries herself in paperwork behind her desk at a rundown office in an alley in Shanghai. This is her daily routine as a social worker at a primary school for migrant workers' children in the suburban Songjiang district.
"I am working a triple load," Jiang told the Global Times. "I will never get a colleague to help me out because the school cannot afford it."
Jiang received a bachelor's degree in social work from the East China University of Science and Technology two years ago, and she has been working for the primary school ever since.
"My monthly salary is around 2,500 yuan ($393), which is barely enough to live comfortably," she said. "I work at least 14 hours a day to help students cope with their problems, and have over 300 students to take care of."
Jiang said the school put up a recruitment notice for another social worker, but no one applied. The shortage of social workers is a common problem throughout the Chinese mainland.
An "impossible" goal
The Ministry of Civil Affairs announced in early November that the government plans to employ 2 million qualified social workers by the end of 2015 and 3 million by 2020.
Huang Shengwei, director of the ministry's social work division, said at a press conference that the public has an accelerating need for social workers, especially among the poorer sections of the community.
According to statistics compiled by the ministry, the Chinese mainland has only 200,000 social workers, meaning the country needs to train 1.8 million in less than 4 years.
"With many social issues to deal with, China is currently lacking social workers, but what's more problematic is that current social workers have not been professionally trained and are therefore unqualified," Huang said.
Xu Yongxiang, dean of the social and public administration school at the East China University of Science and Technology, told the Global Times that it is an enormous task to reach the set goal and train 1.8 million social workers.
Only 258 higher education institutions offer social working programs in the country. Xu believes that vocational training centers are vital for developing experienced social workers. Currently only a quarter of on-the-job social workers have taken the national examination to get qualified.
In Shanghai, the social work faculty at the East China University of Science and Technology has cooperated with various hospitals and local schools to train their staff to become part-time social workers. Xu personally trained over 100 medical staff from 6 local hospitals last year.
"It is a good start. Hospitals and schools have started to recognize the importance of having social workers," he said. "Now we need the government to provide funding."
The average salary of a social worker in the Chinese mainland remains low, according to Guo Xiaomu, secretary-general for the China Association of Social Workers in Shanghai, and nearly 60 percent of social working graduates chose to work in other professions.
"Social workers earn roughly 30,000 yuan a year in Shanghai, and slightly more in Guangdong Province with workers earning 60,000 yuan annually," she said. "But it is not a competitive salary, and some graduates would rather work for human resources departments in private companies which pay double the salary."
"It is not a pleasant job, and given the current situation in the country, social work is not recognized like other professions," she said. "So many social workers quit after their 'good samaritan' drive runs out."
Guo pointed out that most social workers now work in larger cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other coastal cities, while the shortage in the country's western regions is more critical.
Having social workers to deal with disputes on a personal level is very cost-effective, Guo added, and the central government must provide more incentives for social workers to lend a helping hand.
"Many medical disputes can be solved without going to court if a good social worker is on the case," Guo said. "People are warm to social workers, who understand and empathize with their problems."
China released an official guideline on social workers in mid November, recognizing them for the first time as professional experts - a step vital to attracting more people to get involved. 18 ministries in Beijing were involved in creating the new guideline, which calls for improvements to both social worker income and training.
Xu Yongxiang said the most important step the guideline marks is having social work added to the government's budget.
"With social working in the government budget, public institutions will be able to afford hiring social workers," he said.