The Social Work Profession

Some people associate social work with casework and, by analogy, Child Protective Services. A social worker can indeed make a career working in this capacity, but social work as a profession is much broader. Modern social work grew out of attempts – often by women, often by volunteers -- to heal social ills. Poverty was frequently at the root of what they tackled – and yet not always. Nearly 100 years ago, social workers were helping veterans who had been traumatized in World War I. Today’s social workers are in hospitals, health clinics, schools, various social service organizations. They serve the sick as well as the disadvantaged. Some offer counseling services through their own private practices.

social workers

Social work had a professional identity even in the early 20th century. Today, not surprisingly, there are more formal standards in place. The Council on Social Work Education sets the standards for undergraduate and graduate education. The Association of Social Work Boards develops and administers nationwide licensing exams. The National Association of Social Workers is a huge clearinghouse for professional resources; this well-known professional organization has chapters in every U.S. state.

The Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University’s online Master of Social Work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Commission on Accreditation and is designed for working adults with or without a social work bachelor’s degree.

Types of Social Work Practice

Social work can be classified in different ways. Often the terms micro and macro are used. Social workers at the micro level work with individuals. Macro social workers institute change on an organizational level: institutions, communities, even global policies. (Sometimes the word “mezzo” is used for small units like families, but micro will often suffice there, too.)

At the heart of social work education is the premise that many careers share a common set of core competencies. These include knowledge of human behavior within its social context, professionalism and ethics, knowledge of social service delivery systems, and ability to make sense of social research. At the higher levels, social workers can develop advanced competencies in specialty areas. They may become clinicians or administrators. They may focus on particular populations, like children or seniors.

Many social workers pursue clinical social work. While each state define the scope of practice a bit differently, clinical social work generally involves diagnosing and treating mental disorders. In short, clinical social workers are mental health practitioners. They sometimes compete with other mental health practitioners (counselors and even psychologists) for jobs and clients. However, they often bring a unique perspective to the role. Social work programs emphasize looking at human behavior in a societal context; moreover, the profession has a history of attracting idealists. Just as some patients prefer advanced practice nurses over physicians (citing compassion or greater focus on preventative care), some clients prefer social workers over mental health professionals from other disciplines.

Clinical social workers tend to have salaries above the norm for the profession. The BLS lists $42,650 as the mean for mental health and substance abuse social workers and $44,410 as the mean for child, family, and youth social workers. These categories are broad, though, and tell only part of the story. Social workers in elementary and secondary schools make far more than others who work with children, averaging $58,010. NASW, meanwhile, has reported a correlation between health and mental health practice areas and higher salaries.

Professional Identity

All states license at least some social workers, though there is not national consensus about who needs licensing. Those who offer clinical services? Those at the independent level? Anyone who has a job position titled “social worker”?

In some locales, one can be a social services worker without a license, but not a social worker. But having the title – and the education that it is based on – can be a real asset. Those who do casework are not always social workers. Yet publications by NASW suggest that, to a disproportionate degree, those who are happy doing casework are.

A NASW report, based on a large scale survey, found far greater job satisfaction among social workers employed in child welfare than what has been reported for child welfare workers as a whole. Social workers were more likely to report sufficient professional development and adequate meeting time with supervisors. They also tended to have smaller, more manageable caseloads – and better pay. Social workers did report a number of job stresses, but tended to focus more on the plight of families they served than on their own working conditions.

There can be advantages to having a profession as well as a job… advantages for all concerned.

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