Career Overview: Social Work

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Do you like to help people-to really make a difference in their daily lives? To work with those with health, income, or emotional troubles? Then social work might be the field for you.

According to the International Federation of Social Workers, "The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work."

In plain English, social work comprises services aimed at improving the welfare of the poor, children, and the elderly. High school therapists, foster care workers, rape crisis center employees, probation officers, suicide hotline counselors, corporate employee assistance program workers, substance abuse counselors: All these professions and more are involved in social work.

What You'll Do
Social work is about helping people, whether by providing goods and services directly or by working to effect social change. Social workers provide a voice for the people who need the most help and are the least heard. They counsel people who are mentally ill and help the poor find jobs and other social services. They work with children who are struggling in school or who come from broken homes. They prod lawmakers to fund rehabilitation programs and to maintain current social programs.

Where They Work
Despite popular perception, not all social workers are employed by the government to help people on welfare or to relocate abused children. In fact, fewer than half of all social workers are government employees.

Social workers can be employed by organizations ranging from hospitals, schools, advocacy nonprofits, and police departments to private corporations, government agencies, nursing homes, and international aid organizations. Mental health counselors and those who help patients return home from the hospital represent two of the largest segments of the profession.

Who Does Well
Social workers are typically civic-minded individuals with a superb ability to listen and to empathize with an extremely diverse group of people. They're also usually tough-minded-people who want to make a difference must often have the stomach to deal with deeply troubled clients.

In addition, social workers must endure the rigors of formal education and extensive state licensing requirements. A master's degree in social work is required for an increasing number of positions. Analytical skills can help, too, since lawmakers and insurance companies demand studies and statistics to prove that social programs are working.


Helping people demands more than a big heart-it requires substantial amounts of education and field training. States are requiring more and more degrees and licenses to practice social work.

If you don't have much formal education beyond high school, the field will offer you few positions. Though agencies sometimes hire untrained people (especially bilingual ones) as social worker assistants, such jobs are rare and usually don't pay well. A bachelor's degree from a university is required for virtually all entry-level jobs. Normally, people pursuing careers in social work get a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, but people with degrees in related fields such as psychology and sociology may be eligible for some entry-level positions or for admission into graduate programs.

Increasingly, a master of social work (MSW) degree is a prerequisite for finding employment in the field. Those who provide therapy and counseling services, such as psychiatric social workers or clinical social workers, must have an MSW. Many positions in school social work or agency administration require a graduate education. Few positions outside of academia require a doctorate in social work.

Many positions require social work degrees from schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. You can check out the organization's website at

All 50 states now require certain social workers to be licensed at the state level, but each state has its own policies. Many states require that social workers employed by government agencies, such as a local county's child protective services department, be licensed by the state. Others don't require formal licensing beyond a BSW or MSW.

Most states require licensing for social workers involved with counseling or therapy, such as clinical social workers. Furthermore, insurance companies will not reimburse hospitals, agencies, or private practices for counseling services conducted by unlicensed social workers. For your state's requirements, contact your state board.

To widen their range of job opportunities, many experienced social workers obtain additional credentials from organizations such as the Academy of Certified Social Workers.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work opportunities are projected to expand significantly between 2004 and 2014. Why? For one thing, baby boomers are entering old age, which means they'll need more social services. In addition, methods of caring for mentally and physically ill people are changing.

The health care industry will provide many of the new opportunities. Increasingly, health care organizations operating under strict HMO reimbursement guidelines are using social workers to help cut costs. The trend is especially apparent in the field of mental health counseling, since social workers offer cheaper psychotherapeutic services than do fully licensed psychiatrists or psychologists. In addition, the desire to move patients out of hospitals more quickly has increased the demand for social workers who can help patients find community-based recovery services. And since home health care is cheaper than nursing homes, demand for home health care aides is expected to skyrocket.

Schools are also hiring more social workers, especially because of the trend toward integrating special education students into mainstream classrooms.

Note that competition for social work jobs is usually much stiffer in urban areas than rural areas.

One big warning: These jobs often depend on government funding. And these days, governments from the federal level on down are operating under extremely tight budgets. As long as that continues, the danger of funding cuts for social services and layoffs for those in the field persists.

Career Tracks

The day-to-day tasks that make up a social worker'sjob vary according to whether a given social worker's employer is a health care provider, a school, a government, a private social service agency, an agency that analyzes social policy issues, or some other kind of organization.

Human Services Social Workers
When most people think of social workers, they picture human services social workers, the professionals hired by government, nonprofit, and private agencies to work directly with clients (often in their homes) to help them overcome social and economic obstacles.

Social workers hold a wide range of human services positions. Child welfare and protective-services social workers find new homes for abused and neglected children or work with single parents struggling to take care of their children. Family-services social workers help immigrant families adjust to their new communities, assist low-income families trying to get off welfare, or match pregnant women with adoption programs. Criminal justice social workers help parolees find work or advise families after a provider has been imprisoned.

Not all human services social workers are caseworkers who work individually with clients. In an effort to reduce the cost of social services, many organizations have become more group-oriented. Such organizations hire social workers to plan and run programs that serve many people at once.

Health Care Social Workers
Hospitals, HMOs, clinics, and private counseling centers hire social workers to provide counseling services and to help patients cope with their medical problems (and the causes thereof).

Many physical maladies have behavioral, emotional, or social roots. In such cases, hospitals hire medical social workers to help individual patients find resources for dealing with their problems. Drug and alcohol abusers, for example, may meet with medical social workers who put them in touch with rehabilitation programs and counseling services.

In addition, medical social workers help chronically ill patients adjust to life outside of a hospital. They assist patients suffering from diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

In the field of mental health, many social workers provide direct counseling services. In both clinics and private practices, clinical and psychiatric social workers offer psychotherapeutic services, meeting face to face with patients, listening to their problems, and counseling them. Such social work is very similar to the work of professional psychologists or counselors. (But, of course, this kind of work doesn't usually pay what those professionals make.)

School Social Workers
Students today face daily challenges including drug use, violence, and sex-related problems. Many schools hire social workers to help students deal with such issues.

School social workers act much like psychotherapeutic clinical social workers: They listen to problems and offer advice. Because the problems may be dire-suicide attempts, heavy drug use-school social workers must be thoroughly trained in counseling techniques. For students with severe emotional problems, school social workers may recommend outside psychiatric services.

In addition to therapeutic services, school social workers connect needy students with the appropriate government, medical, or community services. Here their jobs resemble human services work-they determine the cause of a student's problems and then advise teachers, school administrators, and parents about the best responses. School social workers look for signs of child abuse or neglect and may even recommend that victimized children be removed from their homes and placed with a local government's child-protection agency.

In addition to dealing with emotional and behavioral problems, school social workers help students who have learning disabilities. They also work closely with special education teachers to make sure laws are followed and paperwork is filed correctly.

Social Work Planners
Many social workers research social problems in order to develop new social programs and advise policy makers in charge of government services and welfare policies.

Social work planners, who work for nonprofit community organizations, research community problems such as prostitution, teen pregnancy, crime against the elderly, or youth violence. They then devise programs that educate other social workers, police, and community members. They may also develop and run community centers designed to help citizens affected by local strife.

Social work planners may also be hired by lobbyists to study social problems. For example, social work planners may study the effects of welfare reform and then help lobbyists suggest how policymakers should draft welfare-to-work legislation.


Average ranges for social work positions are as follows:

  • Educational, vocational, or school counselor: $25,000 to $75,000
  • Mental health counselor: $20,000 to $60,000
  • Marriage or family therapist: $20,000 to $70,000
  • Child, school, or family social worker $20,000 to $60,000
  • Medical or public health social worker: $25,000 to $60,000
  • Mental health or substance abuse social worker: $20,000 to $55,000

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