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Careers in Social Work

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 4/14/2022

Social workers can be found in many work environments, from nonprofit organizations to hospitals to schools and beyond. It's an appealing career choice for individuals who want to help people and see their communities thrive. An added bonus is that professionals can choose an area of specialization so they can focus on the work and populations that matter most to them. Learn more about social work jobs, educational requirements, salary expectations, skills, and other considerations.

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What Do Social Workers Do?

Generally speaking, social workers help individuals, families, and groups gain access to the services and support programs they need to address problems they may be experiencing. For example, a social worker might help an ailing veteran get healthcare or assist a low-income family in locating financial resources. Clinical social workers are trained to diagnose and treat mental illness or emotional and behavioral problems, and some social workers address broader systemic issues within a community.

Become a Social Worker

Becoming a social worker begins with a college degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Students who earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) are qualified for a range of entry-level nonclinical positions. With a Master of Social Work (MSW), graduates may become clinical social workers who assess, diagnose, and counsel clients with behavioral or mental health issues. All BSW and MSW programs require students to fulfill a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience, known as fieldwork.

In most states, graduates must obtain a license to practice once they have completed a number of years of supervised work. The criteria for earning state licensure varies by state, but usually involves a passing score on a comprehensive exam in addition to educational and experiential requirements.

Skills Needed for Social Work Careers

The role of a social worker is complex and multifaceted, requiring a number of skills and abilities. Some of the most important include:

  • Compassion — an understanding and acceptance of clients' life choices, situations, and behaviors 
  • Communication — active listening and speaking clearly and persuasively
  • Interpersonal — the ability to pick up on nonverbal cues as well as build relationships
  • Organizational — documenting information, keeping accurate records, and using basic technology, such as computers
  • Reasoning — problem-solving and critical-thinking

Career Opportunities and Job Outlook

Social workers make up a fairly substantial portion of the overall workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently more than 715,000 social work jobs in the U.S. Not surprisingly, some of the most populous states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Massachusetts — employ the most social workers. Across all states, the largest employers in order are: individual and family services, local government (excluding education and hospitals), ambulatory healthcare services, and state government (excluding education and hospitals).

Perhaps more important, the need for social workers is projected to grow by 12% through 2030. This is supported by industry data from March 2022, which showed more than 370,000 job openings.

In terms of annual salaries, social workers were earning a median of $51,760 as of May 2020, while counselors and community service specialists were earning a median of $47,500. Salaries may vary, however, depending on the type of employer.

Types of Social Work Practice

To help explain the different roles social workers might perform, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has developed three categories of social work practice, although they sometimes overlap. Micro practice usually applies to licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who help clients understand their emotions and behaviors while teaching coping skills. At the mezzo practice level, LCSWs typically work with groups, such as families, faith communities, and schools by helping them understand and resolve issues, but they may bring in other resources. Social workers involved in macro practice work on behalf of at-risk populations, usually serving as a representative and advocate for a larger group.

Careers in Social Work by Specialty

Social work professionals can choose to work in a number of different settings with diverse populations. To begin preparing for one of these specific career paths, social work students often start thinking about potential specializations while still in school. After graduating, many pursue certification in their core area from the NASW or other professional organizations. The following table introduces 12 of the most common types or specialties of social work.

Job Title Practice Type Degree Required Primary Tasks
Case Manager Micro/Mezzo Bachelor‘s Work directly with clients; assess needs and create treatment plans; assist in locating resources; manage cases continuously to ensure care
Community Outreach Social Worker Macro Bachelor‘s Serve as representative for people in need; interact with residents and community leaders to raise awareness of ongoing issues and advocate for change
Social and Human Services Assistants Micro/Mezzo Bachelor‘s (preferred) Work with social workers to implement their clients‘ treatment plans; locate products, services, and programs needed for clients
Child and Family Social Workers Mezzo MSW Work with families to ensure they have adequate housing, food, and other necessities; if children are in danger, move them into foster care until their family is able to care for them again
Forensic Social Worker Macro MSW Provide a social workers perspective on legal matters or litigation, such as a custody dispute or a criminal trial involving a minor
Gerontological Social Worker Mezzo MSW Help older adults and their families cope with common challenges and adapt to life changes, such as dealing with a physical disability or moving into a nursing home
Healthcare or Medical Social Worker Micro/Mezzo/Macro MSW Typically found in hospitals, they help clients adjust to newly diagnosed illnesses; provide psychological therapy; help locate resources and support services
Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker Mezzo MSW Support older adults and their families facing the effects of a terminal illness
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Micro/Mezzo/Macro MSW Provide different types of therapy for individuals and families; offer some nonclinical services, such as mediation
Mental Health Social Worker Micro/Mezzo MSW Frequently employed by psychiatric hospitals or large hospitals with specialized psychiatric wards; create treatment plans and provide therapy to clients with severe mental illness
Military Social Worker Mezzo MSW Often working in veterans‘ hospitals, they help veterans receive healthcare for job-related injuries and illnesses, including mental health issues; help veterans find employment after leaving military service
Pediatric Social Worker Mezzo MSW Work with seriously or terminally ill children and their families to provide emotional support; help locate other needed services

Interested in learning about similar degree programs? Explore these possibilities: counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, public health, and school counseling.

Career Advancement

Graduates who've earned accredited bachelor's degrees in social work may need to acquire several years of work experience and possibly earn an advanced degree to move ahead. For example, social workers who hold a master's degree in social work may be able to earn more by providing clinical counseling services. An MSW also paves the way to go into private practice as a counselor or therapist. Some professionals may also want to consider earning a doctorate or PhD in social work so they can assume high-level, higher paying roles in social services administration or academia.

Another possibility for career advancement is certification. Earning certification demonstrates your level of commitment to professional growth, and although it is not necessarily required for most social work positions, it may open the door to better job opportunities. The NASW offers certification for both BSW and MSW holders in a range of specialties, including education, gerontology, healthcare, and military clients.

Explore our Guide to Social Work Degrees to learn more about earning a degree in the field

Occupational Considerations

Before deciding on a career in social work, it's important to look at this occupation from all angles. In an ongoing survey conducted by Career Explorer, social worker respondents rate their career satisfaction at a 2.9 out of 5. The following are some potential drawbacks that may explain some professionals' criticism:

  • As personally fulfilling as this career can be, social workers may not see a significant financial reward given the high cost of earning a college degree. Clinical social workers, in particular, may be challenged to recoup their investment because they need to earn an MSW to practice. The average cost of all master's degrees is $66,340, but the median annual wage for social workers was $51,760 as of May 2020.
  • Social workers typically work long hours, including weekends and holidays, and they are often on call. Much of their work day is spent traveling to visit clients at various locations around their community.
  • The BLS notes that there are several additional sources of stress in the workplace. Social workers are sometimes required to deal with difficult situations or challenging clients, which may explain why they have one of the highest rates of injuries and illness of all occupations. Also, some organizations are short-staffed, so social workers may face heavy workloads.

Need more information on paying for college? Visit our Guide to Financial Aid for Online Students.

Alternative Career Paths for Social Workers

Social work is not the only career path available for those who want to help people within their communities. The BLS lists several related occupations.

Community Health Workers
Median Annual Salary: $42,000
Job Outlook: 21%
Required Education: Associate

Community health workers arrange for healthcare for both individuals and larger communities. For individuals, they may provide basic health services, informal counseling, and education. On a larger scale, they may collect data to identify community needs, conduct educational programs, and advocate for better healthcare and social services. Some states offer voluntary certification programs for community health workers.

Social and Community Service Managers
Median Annual Salary: $69,600
Job Outlook: 15%
Required Education: Bachelor's

Social and community service managers support public wellbeing by coordinating, directing, and supervising workers who provide social services. Among their other duties are analyzing data to measure the effectiveness of and need for new programs, advocacy, grant writing, and community outreach. Professionals usually assume these roles after acquiring several years of experience in, for example, social work or counseling.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor
Median Annual Salary: $47,660
Job Outlook: 23%
Required Education: Bachelor's

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors assess and treat people so they can recover from addiction or change problem behaviors, such as alcoholism, depression, or eating disorders. Specifically, they help clients understand their actions and develop new skills and strategies to deal with stressors and overcome challenges. They may also work with clients' family members, helping them learn to cope with problem behaviors. All states require counselors in private practice to be licensed, although licensure requirements vary by state.

Marriage and Family Therapists
Median Annual Salary: $51,340
Job Outlook: 16%
Required Education: Master's

Marriage and family therapists work with individuals, couples, and families. They help people improve their interactions within their families and understand the underlying issues — such as low self-esteem and depression — that may be harmful to these relationships. They often help clients set goals, plan for the future, and adjust to significant life changes. Marriage and family therapists are required to be licensed in all states, but the requirements vary by state.

Rehabilitation Counselors
Median Annual Salary: $37,530
Job Outlook: 10%
Required Education: Master's

Rehabilitation counselors specialize in working with individuals who have physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities. After assessing clients' abilities, interests, and health, they teach clients essential life skills so they can live independently. They are often called upon to locate the products and services their clients need, including employment. Rehabilitation counselors must obtain a license to practice in some states.

School and Career Counselors
Median Annual Salary: $58,120
Job Outlook: 11%
Required Education: Master's

Both school and career counselors work with young people, but in different ways. School counselors typically work one-on-one with K-12 students to help them understand and modify problem behaviors, and they may also help students improve their learning by developing better study habits and time management skills. Career counselors are more likely to work with high school and college students by assisting them in identifying their interests and mapping out possible career paths. School and career counselors are generally required to have some type of credential, but the types of credential and criteria vary by state.

FAQs About Careers in Social Work

Is Social Work a Good Career Choice?

A career in social work may be an excellent choice for you if you want to help people of all ages and backgrounds. Social work occupations afford numerous opportunities to support individuals, groups, and communities, especially those who are vulnerable and need help finding solutions to both basic and extensive problems.

Is Social Work a Stressful Job?

Social work has the potential to be stressful. Large caseloads are common for many social workers, and because clients are often undergoing significant challenges themselves, they may be difficult to deal with at times. Additionally, social workers may feel frustrated when much-needed resources, such as affordable housing and food, are scarce or when public institutions and legislation are slow to address the changing needs of a community.

Can You Make Good Money as a Social Worker?

The BLS reports that as of 2020 the median annual wage for all social workers was about $10,000 higher than the median for all occupations — $51,760 versus $41,950.

What Field of Social Work Pays the Most?

According to the BLS, the highest paying social work jobs go to the broadest category of social workers, with a median annual wage of $64,210. Social workers in several of the most common areas of specialization — including healthcare, substance abuse, and school counseling — all earn lower median salaries.

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