A career in social work entails dealing with the intricacies of life in modern society. A social work degree program equips you to work in many different roles in a variety of settings, exposing you to social issues at individual, group and community levels.
Social workers are caregivers, peacemakers, a wellspring of resourcefulness, and advocates for sustainable social practices, among other things. As a social worker, you might find yourself working in healthcare facilities, educational institutions, mental health institutions and government agencies.
The role of social workers has dramatically evolved since the turn of the century, and their increasing resourcefulness has given rise to greater demand for their services. Social work is expected to witness unprecedented growth levels, outpacing the average growth rate of all professions.
Here is a closer look at a career in social work and the promising outlook for those who are passionate about protecting the interests of others.
What is social work, and what does it entail?
A social worker is a professional who helps individuals, families and communities fulfill their basic needs. They use their expertise to help identify and solve problems related to physical health, mental health, food security, housing security and social needs. They are champions of equality and warriors of social justice, committed to tackling social and psychological issues that are impediments to people’s personal and professional growth as well as their overall well-being.
A firm understanding of human behaviors and the institutions that influence them is a core requirement for social work. Although many types of social work are heavily socially oriented, some require a strong clinical background.
Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), sometimes simply called clinical social workers (CWS), possess a license to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders. They work with patients and other medical practitioners to develop, administer and monitor treatment plans for patients.
All types of social workers share several common tasks, from counseling sessions to carrying out diagnosis and treatment and referring cases to the appropriate experts or services.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical responsibilities of social workers include:
- Identifying the needs of vulnerable people and underserved communities
- Analyzing a client’s strengths, weaknesses and resources at their disposal
- Providing support to help people adjust to new realities such as illnesses, divorce, or the loss of a loved one
- Providing emergency support for those in urgent need of assistance with their basic needs
- Identifying and connecting clients to relevant support programs and services ranging from food stamps to childcare, healthcare and assisted living
- Monitoring and following up on clients to ensure full recovery from their issues
- Organizing and maintaining clients’ data
- Engaging with policymakers and other members of the community to advocate for improved access to social amenities and more inclusive growth opportunities
Why consider a career in social work?
If you’re passionate about helping others find solutions to their personal and social problems and improving the quality of life in your community, you’ll find a career in social work highly fulfilling. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to use your critical thinking, organizational skills and interpersonal skills to help tackle issues such as substance abuse, separation and divorce, and child adoption.
Here are some compelling reasons to consider a career in social work, especially if you’re thinking about switching to a new career.
It’s one of the fastest-growing professions
The demand for social workers has been on the rise not only in the US but globally. In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the industry will grow by 13% between 2019 and 2029, which is well above the average growth rate for all industries.
Bridging the gaps in healthcare and social welfare delivery
As the social worker’s role grows increasingly intricate, social workers are becoming more instrumental in the delivery of social and healthcare services. They’re playing an increasingly critical role in helping people overcome barriers to adequate healthcare and facilitating access to social amenities. They also educate people about care programs, referring them to the appropriate services or professionals, and advocating for better social and healthcare policies and standards.
The direct economic benefits for society as a whole
Besides their resourcefulness in helping people fulfill their essential needs, the growing demand for social workers is also a result of the economic benefits they provide to society. Studies show that, by helping tackle issues that disrupt daily life in society, social workers can exert a positive impact on crime rates, healthcare delivery, employment, and academic and professional advancement. All of this strengthens the likelihood of economic stability in a society.
Fostering stronger relationships and a community spirit
As bridge builders, social workers have a responsibility to promote supportive relationships and encourage a community spirit in their area. They address issues that strain relationships, such as poverty, trauma, and unfavorable social determinants, fostering love and emotional support in a community.
A multitude of career advancement opportunities
The growing demand for social workers isn’t just confined to one or two specific types of social workers; instead, it applies to a broad range of social worker roles. As a social worker, you won’t run out of opportunities to acquire certifications and find fulfilling work that earns a decent income. You can work in a wide range of roles in a variety of settings, from healthcare settings to government agencies, nonprofits and large enterprises.
The different levels of social work
There are numerous roles you can occupy as a social worker. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work can be grouped into three main categories: micro social work, or social work for individuals; mezzo social work, or social work for groups like couples and families; and macro social work, or social work for communities or certain demographics.
Note that these categories serve as broad generalizations; a social worker’s work can span multiple categories.
Micro social work
At the most basic level, social work involves micro-interactions with individuals and families. Micro social work entails providing support and access to resources for individuals who are in need of healthcare, housing, employment, and other basic needs. As a micro social worker, your daily clients might include children, families, veterans and people battling addictions.
Mezzo social work
At the group level, social work entails securing the interests and well-being of various groups of people, from neighborhoods to schools and small to medium-sized organizations. Mezzo social workers encounter wider social issues compared to micro workers, from culture to social justice and interracial relations.
At this level, social workers need to collaborate with institutions and agencies to design and implement social initiatives that have ramifications spanning beyond just some individuals.
Macro social work
This refers to social work on a larger scale involving programs and policies that affect communities and regions as a whole. There are hardly any one-on-one interactions involved, and social workers at this level engage mostly with policymakers, agencies and large organizations. They collaborate with others to develop policies, legislations and programs, and to advocate for wider systemic changes that can improve people’s lives in general.
The most common roles and specialties in social work
The roles you may qualify for as a social worker depend on the level of your academic qualifications and specialization. However, once you’ve gained a footing on entry-level jobs, you’ll find it easy to progress to more advanced roles.
Here is a look at some of the most common entry-level roles for newly minted social workers.
Entry-level social work roles
Entry-level social work usually requires a minimum of a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) or an associate degree in social work. Entry-level social workers can work as assistants for human services, health educators and social science research assistants. Here’s a closer look at some popular entry-level roles for social workers.
Child and family social workers
This group of social workers is interested in building stable families and providing a good upbringing for children. They tackle family issues such as child abuse, divorce and housing insecurity. They can offer access to child support, protect at-risk children and arrange adoptions. They also help connect families with food programs, housing services and a range of support programs.
School social worker
Social workers play a wide range of roles in school settings, from assisting struggling students to managing emotional, behavioral, and social issues, and providing health education. They work with students, teachers, parents and the school administration to address issues such as aggressive behavior, poor academic performance and truancy.
More advanced school social worker roles require higher degrees, such as a master’s in social work (MSW), but there are plenty of entry-level roles for beginners, including those who have yet to obtain a license.
Mental health social workers
Mental health social workers are trained to help people thrive in the face of mental disorders. They can diagnose and treat various types of mental health challenges in both healthcare settings and nonmedical settings like schools, detention facilities and community centers.
A more advanced degree and a license are often required to practice mental health social work, but in some states and workplaces, a bachelor’s degree is enough.
Advanced social work
To qualify for more advanced social worker roles, you might need an advanced degree. Advanced social work often requires extra specialization and training. A program like Cleveland State University’s MSW program online can help you acquire the necessary training in the shortest time possible. It combines 100% online coursework, which is self-paced, with hundreds of hours of guided field experience to help students quickly come to grips with the intricacies of advanced social work.
Students get to brush up on their knowledge of generalist social work, including fundamental concepts and theories. Afterward, they’re exposed to more advanced specialties like the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of physical and mental ailments, broader social issues like diversity and inclusion, and policy work and advocacy.
If your goal is to work in a more advanced social worker role, here are some interesting job titles that might be available.
Healthcare social workers
Healthcare social workers are licensed to work with various medical professionals to diagnose, treat and manage a wide variety of physical and mental health problems. They work in healthcare settings, care homes and rehabilitation centers, offering consultations and providing information and guidance to treat pathological issues that affect social life. They also help patients deal with social and lifestyle issues that could have a direct impact on their health and well-being.
Some healthcare social workers are generalists who can handle a wide range of cases, but many specialize in certain areas such as palliative care, geriatric social work, medical social work and healthcare policy development.
Social and community service manager
Leaning more toward administrative duties, the role of a social service manager requires overseeing policies and programs at the mezzo and micro levels. Social service managers work with policymakers, community leaders and other similar professionals to develop, adjust and manage programs geared toward the unique needs of a community. Their daily responsibilities include writing proposals, supervising administrative staff, and tracking the implementation of programs and policies.
Public policy social worker
Similar to social and community service managers, public policy social workers are concerned with macro-level issues affecting entire communities and demographics. The main difference is that they don’t manage organizations or healthcare programs.
Instead, they are actively involved in shaping those programs and policies. They advocate for positive policies and social changes through education, consultations with policymakers and community stakeholders, and many other forms of intervention.
Examples of public policy social work include advocating for public housing programs or zoning regulations to protect members of marginalized communities, running advertising campaigns targeting policymakers and legislators, and working with city boards on large-scale programs for economically disenfranchised people.
Social work teacher
Another type of advanced social worker role requiring a master’s degree or another advanced degree, social work teachers work at colleges and other learning institutions to guide aspiring social workers. If you’re interested in guiding others into the field of social work, this might be a great career option for you. You can choose to teach college students part-time or work in tenured positions.
How to become a social worker
If you are wondering how to get your foot in the door in the industry, here are some helpful steps.
Conduct a career appraisal
If you already have a bachelor’s degree and an established career in any field, you might want to first consider whether a career in social work aligns with your long-term career goals. Are you prepared to take on a new degree and specialty? Do you possess the basic qualities that social work requires?
Some of the soft skills you’ll need include:
- Strong communication skills
- A keen eye for identifying and observing problems
- Excellent organization skills
- Deep problem-solving and analytics skills
- Empathy and a strong desire to help others improve their lives
- Extensive cultural awareness
- Patience and good listening skills
- Advocacy skills
Prepare for the academic requirements
A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is usually the minimum academic requirement for social work roles. A BSW can prepare you for many opportunities for meaningful and decent-paying direct service jobs. However, if you want to delve deeper into more advanced roles, you need at least a master’s in social work (MSW). Note that many MSW programs don’t require a BSW; a bachelor’s degree in another related field might suffice.
Determine the specialty that suits you best
After determining the academic qualifications you want to pursue, the next step is deciding on a specialty. Consider this before enrolling in a master’s or bachelor’s program. Opting for a specialty rather than a generalized degree can open you up to even more opportunities for career advancement.
Obtain your license
You can still land several interesting roles without a license, but many advanced roles do require some form of licensure. Licensing requirements differ between states and employers, but the most common requirement is passing the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) social work licensing exam.
Launch your career as a social worker
As a fully certified social worker, you can begin applying for work in a wide variety of settings. You can even aim for more advanced roles – especially if you have advanced degrees – even if you have little or no work experience. Many employers will be satisfied with the experience you gain from the fieldwork placement in an accredited program.
Social workers are bridge builders, agents of positive change, and warriors of social justice. As a social worker, your daily life revolves around finding ways to improve the lives of others.
Social workers work across multiple levels of society to find solutions to people’s physical and social needs. They can work with individuals, families, healthcare teams, policymakers and community leaders.
They’re experts at problem-solving and finding innovative solutions for highly sensitive problems. Their interpersonal and conflict resolution skills can save communities from many societal ails, including crime, discrimination, poverty and inequality.
If you’re passionate about helping people improve their lives, you can launch a fulfilling career as a social worker by earning the necessary degrees and applying for licensure before finally taking on one of many different roles available across a wide array of work settings.