Social work is a profession for those with a strong desire to help improve people's lives. Social workers assist people by helping them cope with and solve issues in their everyday lives, such as family and personal problems and dealing with relationships. Some social workers help clients who face a disability, life-threatening disease, social problem, such as inadequate housing, unemployment, or substance abuse. Social workers also assist families that have serious domestic conflicts, sometimes involving child or spousal abuse. Additionally, they may conduct research, advocate for improved services, or become involved in planning or policy development. Many social workers specialize in serving a particular population or working in a specific setting. In all settings, these workers may also be called licensed clinical social workers, if they hold the appropriate State mandated license.
Child, family, and school social workers provide social services and assistance to improve the social and psychological functioning of children and their families. Workers in this field assess their client’s needs and offer assistance to improve their situation. This often includes coordinating available services to assist a child or family. They may assist single parents in finding day care, arrange adoptions, or help find foster homes for neglected, abandoned, or abused children. These workers may specialize in working with a particular problem, population or setting, such as child protective services, adoption, homelessness, domestic violence, or foster care.
In schools, social workers often serve as the link between students' families and the school, working with parents, guardians, teachers, and other school officials to ensure that students reach their academic and personal potential. They also assist students in dealing with stress or emotional problems. Many school social workers work directly with children with disabilities and their families. In addition, they address problems such as misbehavior, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and drug and alcohol problems and advise teachers on how to cope with difficult students. School social workers may teach workshops to entire classes on topics like conflict resolution.
Child, family, and school social workers may be known as child welfare social workers, family services social workers, or child protective services social workers. These workers often work for individual and family services agencies, schools, or State or local governments.
Medical and public health social workers provide psychosocial support to individuals, families, or vulnerable populations so they can cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, or AIDS. They also advise family caregivers, counsel patients, and help plan for patients' needs after discharge from hospitals. They may arrange for at-home services, such as meals-on-wheels or home care. Some work on interdisciplinary teams that evaluate certain kinds of patients, such as geriatric or organ transplant patients.
Some specialize in services for senior citizens and their families. These social workers may run support groups for the adult children of aging parents. Also, they may assess, coordinate, and monitor services such as housing, transportation, and long-term care. These workers may be known as gerontological social workers.
Medical and public health social workers may work for hospitals, nursing and personal care facilities, individual and family services agencies, or local governments.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers assess and treat individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems. Such services include individual and group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and teaching skills needed for everyday living. They also may help plan for supportive services to ease clients' return to the community when leaving in-patient facilities. They may provide services to assist family members of those who suffer from addiction or other mental health issues. These workers may work in outpatient facilities, where clients come in for treatment and then leave, or in inpatient programs, where patients reside at the facility. Some mental health and substance social workers may work in employee-assistance programs. In this setting, they may help people cope with job-related pressures or with personal problems that affect the quality of their work. Other social workers work in private practice, where they are employed directly by the client. These social workers may be known as clinical social workers, occupational social workers, or substance abuse social workers.
Other types of social workers include social work administrators, researchers, planners and policymakers, who develop and implement programs to address issues such as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and violence. These workers research and analyze policies, programs, and regulations. They identify social problems and suggest legislative and other solutions. They may help raise funds or write grants to support these programs.
Social workers held about 715,600 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up social workers was distributed as follows:
- Child, family, and school social workers - 335,300
- Healthcare social workers - 184,900
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers - 124,000
- Social workers, all other - 71,400
The largest employers of social workers were as follows:
- Individual and family services - 18%
- Local government, excluding education and hospitals - 14%
- Ambulatory healthcare services - 14%
- State government, excluding education and hospitals - 14%
Most social workers work in an office setting. They may spend time visiting clients and meeting with colleagues and community specialists or other support workers. School social workers may be assigned to multiple schools and travel around the school district to see students. Understaffing and large caseloads may cause the work to be stressful.
Injuries and Illnesses
Social workers, all other have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. (“Social workers, all other” includes criminal justice social workers, adult protective service social workers, and forensic social workers, among other titles.)
Most social workers are employed full time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.
Education & Training Required
A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) is the most common minimum requirement to qualify for a job as a social worker; however, majors in psychology, sociology, and related fields may qualify for some entry-level jobs, especially in small community agencies. Although a bachelor's degree is sufficient for entry into the field, an advanced degree is required for some positions. A master's degree in social work (MSW) is typically required for positions in health and school settings and is required for clinical work, as well. Some jobs in public and private agencies may require an advanced degree, such as an MSW with a concentration in social services policy or administration. Supervisory, administrative, and staff training positions usually require an advanced degree. College and university teaching positions and most research appointments normally require a doctorate in social work (DSW or Ph.D.).
As of June 2009, the Council on Social Work Education accredited 468 bachelor's programs and 196 master's programs. The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education listed 74 doctoral programs in social work (DSW or Ph.D.) in the United States. Bachelor degree programs prepare graduates for direct service positions, such as caseworker, mental health assistant, group home worker and residential counselor. These programs include courses in social work values and ethics, dealing with a culturally diverse clientele and at-risk populations, promotion of social and economic justice, human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy and services, social work practice, social research methods, and field education. Accredited programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience.
Master's degree programs prepare graduates for work in their chosen field of concentration and continue to develop the skills required to perform clinical assessments, manage large caseloads, take on supervisory roles, and explore new ways of drawing upon social services to meet the needs of clients. Master's programs usually last 2 years and include a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction or internship. A part-time program may take 4 years. Entry into a master's program does not require a bachelor's degree in social work, but courses in psychology, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and social work are recommended. In addition, a second language can be very helpful. Most master's programs offer advanced standing for those with a bachelor's degree from an accredited social work program.
All States and the District of Columbia have licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Most States require 2 years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for licensure of clinical social workers. Due to some limitations on what settings unlicensed social workers may work and some variation in the requirements to obtain a license, those interested in becoming a social worker should research requirements in their State.
Other Skills Required
Social workers should be emotionally mature, objective, and sensitive to people and their problems. They must be able to handle responsibility, work independently, and maintain good working relationships with clients and coworkers. Volunteer or paid jobs as a social work aide can help people test their interest in this field.
How to Advance
Advancement to supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director of a social service agency or department usually requires an advanced degree and related work experience. Other career options for social workers include teaching, research, and consulting. Some of these workers help formulate government policies, by analyzing and advocating policy positions in government agencies, in research institutions, and on legislators' staffs.
Some social workers go into private practice. Most private practitioners are clinical social workers who provide psychotherapy, usually paid for through health insurance or by the client themselves. Private practitioners must have at least a master's degree and a period of supervised work experience. A network of contacts for referrals also is essential.
Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.
About 78,300 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Projected employment of social workers varies by occupation (see table). Child and family social workers will be needed to work with families to strengthen parenting skills, prevent child abuse, and identify alternative homes for children who are unable to live with their biological families. In schools, more social workers will be needed as student enrollments rise. However, employment growth of child, family, and school social workers may be limited by federal, state, and local budget constraints.
Healthcare social workers will continue to be needed to help aging populations and their families adjust to new treatments, medications, and lifestyles.
Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs, which may be staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail.
The median annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,520, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,840.
Median annual wages for social workers in May 2021 were as follows:
- Social workers, all other - $61,190
- Healthcare social workers - $60,840
- Child, family, and school social workers - $49,150
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers - $49,130
In May 2021, the median annual wages for social workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Local government, excluding education and hospitals - $61,190
- Ambulatory healthcare services - $58,700
- State government, excluding education and hospitals - $48,090
- Individual and family services - $46,640
Most social workers are employed full-time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.