Social workers assist individuals facing challenges in their lives and connect them with services and resources. These professionals typically have strong skills in interpersonal communication and problem-solving and a passion for helping others.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median social worker salary is $51,760 per year and projects employment in the field to grow by 13% from 2019-2029, much faster than average.
Depending on their speciality, social work jobs touch people of all ages in various settings, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, and community centers. Social workers, especially those working in clinical settings, should hold a license in the state where they work. Most have at least a master's degree in the field; however, some social workers hold a bachelor's.
What Does a Social Worker Do?
Social workers assist people in overcoming difficult periods or transitions in their lives. These professionals accomplish this by assessing their clients' needs, providing support, connecting their clients with resources and programs, and monitoring clients' progress.
Social workers can pursue careers in various specialties, including child and family, school, healthcare, and mental health and substance abuse services. Depending on their focus, these workers interact with different types of people, including adults, children, teachers, family members, and medical professionals. Licensed clinical social workers can provide therapy and counseling services. However, most must get their master's degree and complete two years of supervised experience to gain state licensure.
Social work professionals enjoy rewarding a rewarding career path that positively impacts people's lives. However, social work jobs are often stressful due to high caseload numbers and unpredictable schedules requiring evening and weekend work. Some may find this career path emotionally depleting, as well, since social workers interact with clients who experience difficulties on a daily basis.
As with any occupation, social work requires a specific skill set. In the section below, we discuss several important qualities required to become a social worker.
Key Soft Skills for Social Workers
- Social workers must communicate verbally and in writing with various people and groups, including clients and family members, supervisors, and medical personnel.
- Active Listening
- Listening skills are essential for social workers. These professionals must actively pay attention to what their clients say and ask the right questions in return to promote understanding and trust.
- Emotional Intelligence
- Social workers often interact with people experiencing difficulties in their lives. In response to high-stress situations, social workers must exhibit patience, empathy, and self-awareness to best meet the needs of their clients.
Key Hard Skills for Social Workers
- Case Management
- Social workers must handle large caseloads, monitoring their clients' progress and connecting them with the right resources.
- Client Assessment
- Professionals in the field must accurately evaluate each client's situation, determine their health status, and assess their needs to develop an appropriate service plan.
- Social workers must be resourceful and possess strong critical thinking skills to find solutions to their clients' problems, often given limited resources and funding.
A Day in the Life of a Social Worker
On a typical workday, social workers communicate with clients and their families, along with other parties responsible for their clients' health and well-being. These parties may include educational, medical, and mental health professionals.
Social workers may also serve as the point of contact between their clients and other government entities, like the courts or child protective services. Other responsibilities may include:
- Conducting assessments
- Developing service plans
- Monitoring clients' progress
- Maintaining case files
- Completing reports
- Communicating with clients and other relevant parties
- File management
Professional Spotlight: Dr. JanaLee Wagner
Dr. JanaLee Wagner is a licensed clinical social worker and has been working in the field for 31 years. She holds a bachelor of science in psychology, a master of social work, and a doctor of social work.
Dr. Wagner has worked in medical, geriatrics, advocacy, grief work, and clinical mental health. Her dissertation was focused on the negative effects of social isolation, long before lockdowns from COVID-19.
JanaLee now runs a successful private practice. Her specialties include life transitions, trauma, and helping women find themselves after controlling relationships. Dr. Wagner is a social innovator and enjoys working with community groups to develop new solutions for complicated social problems. She always maintains the social work paradigms of individuals within their environment and systems.
Why did you enter into social work? What initially interested you about the field?
What roles have you held within the social work realm? How would you describe or compare them?
What did your typical workday look like within those various roles?
While working in the hospital or nursing home, I had a set 40-hour workweek but could flex my hours a little. I was able to therefore change my workday to fit the schedule of my children's school schedule as they grew. I also carried a beeper or cell phone to answer on-call questions at all times.
While working on the medical team for the VHA, they set my eight-hour-a-day schedule. There was no on-call work. When I needed to change my schedule, I had to submit how it would benefit the veterans I served and was able to get the changes approved. During my last year there, I worked four 10-hour days.
Besides the hour changes, the days were fairly similar when working in the medical world. Upon arriving at work, I checked for any needs that occurred since I was last there. I prioritized needs and created the day's plan. Rarely did that plan happen. Most of the time, something with a higher need would come up during the day. I'd deal with that, then go back to my plan. Documentation was often squeezed in between the needs and issues as they arrived. There was a lot of overtime simply to complete paperwork. But I actually enjoyed it.
In private practice, I set my schedule. I am currently working three and a half days a week. I see 4-6 clients each day. The difference in purely clinical work, either in private practice or for an agency, is your day is scheduled. You address the client in front of you, document the encounter, and then go to the next scheduled appointment.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working in social work?
What are some of the most challenging aspects?
The most challenging aspect was standing up for my profession and expertise. I entered medical social work when it was really new. We had not gained our respect yet. I had to fight and earn my way there.
Another challenge has been helping others see the value in differences. The differences may be race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. No matter the difference, all individuals always have something to share because of their differences.
The other big challenge has been holding my bosses accountable to our code of ethics. Other professionals I have worked with have similar codes of ethics, but social workers tend to be the conscience wherever we go. Sometimes that has not made me very popular, but it has always brought me respect.
What degree did you pursue for this career, and why?
My initial interest was psychology. I chose psychology to have the ability to understand the human psyche and provide counseling services, eventually. My initial plan was to go to medical school.
My master's is social work. I chose this because insurances recognize an MSW (master of social work) for independent practice, whereas a master's-level psychology [degree] is required to work under someone. Social work had more options available than continuing in psychology.
My doctoral degree is a DSW (doctor of social work). I didn't need another degree to allow licensing, I already had that, but I wanted to expand my career options. The DSW allowed me to dive deeper into social work from a different perspective.
How did your degree prepare you for your role?
Psychology was my bachelor's. I am very glad I did so, because I had a background many social workers did not in the master's program. My psychology background has continued to serve me throughout my career.
My MSW is the degree that awarded me the ability to get a license in independent social work. With an MSW and LICSW (licensed independent clinical social worker) license, I have been able to practice independently and bill insurances. I feel the combination of psychology and social work has awarded me the ability to approach clinical practice with a well-rounded understanding of individuals.
I am super glad I went the direction of a DSW. My program was clinical with a focus on social innovation. I learned so much about building programs that really work for the social issues we face. I also was able to change my mindset as far as macro social work is concerned and have used this knowledge to build a new program for women who have been in controlling relationships.
What do you think helped you most on your journey to become a social worker?
What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a career in social work?
Types of Social Workers
Social workers work with clients of all ages in several different specialities, including child and family, school, healthcare, and mental health and substance abuse. While individuals with a bachelor of social work (BSW) may work in entry-level roles, most employers require that applicants have a master of social work (MSW) and state licensure. Social workers treating and diagnosing mental health conditions must be licensed as a clinical social worker (LCSW).
|Licensure and Certification Requirements
|Career Titles Within This Specialization
|Child and Family
|Social work jobs in this field entail work with families to ensure their children's well-being. These social work professionals also investigate neglect and abuse, connect families with community services, and may arrange for foster care or adoption.
|BSW or MSW
|Varies by state
|Adoption social worker, Child Protective Services social worker, family protection specialist, foster care social worker, case manager, case worker
|These professionals primarily work with parents, teachers, and school administrators to support students and ensure their needs are being met psychologically and academically. Social workers may address issues such as bullying, truancy, and teenage pregnancy.
|BSW or MSW
|Varies by state
|School social worker, case manager, case worker
|Healthcare social workers provide patients with information and counseling to help cope with disease or illness. They connect patients to resources and support groups and help them transition to normal life after extended hospital stays.
|Clinical social worker, medical social worker, oncology social worker, geriatric social worker
|Mental Health and Substance Abuse
|Social work jobs in this speciality provide therapy to individuals experiencing mental health, trauma, or substance abuse issues. Social workers also monitor their clients' progress and connect them with mental health services.
|Clinical social worker, clinical therapist, mental health therapist, substance abuse counselor
Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook
Social work careers have a strong job outlook. The BLS is projecting a 13% employment growth from 2019-2029, which is much faster than average. The demand for social workers in healthcare and mental health and substance abuse services is projected to grow at the fastest rate, thanks to increased government funding in this sector and more people seeking treatment.
In particular, LCSWs have stronger job prospects than those with only a BSW or MSW since they can provide counseling to help treat mental health conditions. To become an LCSW, individuals must obtain their MSW, complete two years of a supervised practicum, and obtain licensure in their state.
The BLS also reports that social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760 as of 2020 with professionals in the highest percentiles earning over $85,820 annually. The top-earning industries are in local government (not including education and hospitals) and outpatient healthcare services.
Annual Median Salary
Next Steps on the Career Path
Social workers with a master's degree in social work and state licensure can pursue a wider array of job opportunities in the field. They also earn higher salaries and take on more responsibilities than individuals with just a bachelor's.
Where Can I Work as a Social Worker?
Social work jobs encompass a variety of settings, including community centers, government agencies, hospitals, out-patient clinics, long-term care centers, and schools. The BLS reports that as of 2019, most social workers worked in the child, family, and school sector, followed by healthcare and mental health and substance abuse services.
Social workers find employment in every state, but most work in heavily populated urban areas. States with higher employment levels for social workers do not always pay the highest wages. For example, California employs the most social workers in mental health and substance abuse and child, family, and school services. However, the top-paying states for these sectors are New Jersey and Washington, D.C., respectively.
How to Get Into Social Work
Becoming a social worker typically requires several steps, including education and licensing requirements. Most social workers have a master's degree and 1-2 years of field experience. All states require clinical social workers to obtain a license, while most states require licenses for non-clinical social workers.
Generally, you will need to complete the following steps to become a licensed social worker:
- Get your BSW (or related) degree
- Get your MSW degree
- Apply for your state license
- Pass your licensing exam
- Complete continuing education requirements
Education Requirements for Social Workers
The first step toward becoming a social worker is to earn a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology or sociology. BSW programs often integrate supervised practicums or an internship within the curriculum to help students gain experience in the field.
Individuals who want to increase their pay, job prospects, and level of responsibility can consider pursuing a master's degree in social work. A BSW is not required to begin a master's program, but applicants may need experience working in the field. MSW students take advanced courses and complete around 1,000 hours of supervised field work. Graduates can then obtain licensure in their state.
Social workers may also complete a doctorate in social work. A DSW degree allows graduates to advance in their social work careers and pursue leadership positions in administration, in organizational policy, or within their specialty.
License and Certification Requirements for Social Workers
Since licensing requirements for social workers vary by state, candidates must check their state's licensing boards for more information. Generally, most states require social workers to complete master's or doctoral degrees in the field before earning licensure. The process to obtain a license involves submitting an application and passing an examination.
All states require that clinical social workers obtain licensure. LCSWs provide mental health counseling to clients either in clinical settings or independent practices. While LCSW credentials and requirements vary across state boards, candidates must typically complete two additional years of supervised practice and pass a licensing exam.
Another option for practicing social workers is to obtain certification within their speciality. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers the following credentials for social workers with either BSW or MSW degrees to help advance their careers.
Diplomate in Clinical Social WorkThe DCSW certification is the highest NASW recognition attainable for clinical social workers, recognizing excellence and dedication to the treatment of mental health disorders.
Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social WorkerThe C-CATODSW certification recognizes social workers who have demonstrated experience and expertise in providing counseling and services to individuals struggling with addiction.
Certified Children, Youth and Family Social WorkerThe C-CYFSW certification demonstrates that social workers at the BSW level have the experience and knowledge to effectively provide services to children and families.
Required Experience for Social Workers
To succeed in their roles, social workers must be strong communicators, expert relationship-builders, and passionate about helping others in the community. Many social work jobs require at least 1-2 years of field experience in addition to a college degree.
Accredited BSW and MSW degree programs allow students to further their education and acquire job experience at the same time. Learners complete required field work and practicums integrated into the curriculum. Practicums require around 200 hours at the bachelor's level and 1,000 hours at the master's level of supervised field work.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of jobs can you get with a social work degree?
What's the highest-paid social work job?
Is social work a good job?
How do I start a career in social work?
Social Work Resources and Professional Organizations
National Association of Social WorkersNASW provides social workers with credentialing programs to advance their careers. The association also offers job listings, research, and workplace standards for various specialties within the profession.
Association of Social Work BoardsASWB provides various regulatory support and resources to the social worker profession, including licensing information, exams, research, and continuing education opportunities.
Council on Social Work EducationCSWE is a national education association that accredits bachelor's and master's degree programs in social work. The council also provides professional development opportunities for social workers.
Association of Community Organization and Social ActionACOSA is a professional association that advocates for education, research, and community organization within the social work profession.
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