Social Work Careers Available

Social workers enjoy a variety of employment opportunities and career specializations. For instance, degree-holders can pursue careers in school social work, geriatric social work, or substance abuse social work. Although salaries vary by location, social workers earn around $48,000 per year. The field also boasts a large opportunity for growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that positions in social work will grow by 16% between 2016 and 2026, nearly 10% more than the projected growth for all occupations. This growth is partly due to a growing population in need of social services, including aging Baby Boomers and individuals suffering from addiction.

Social Work Careers Available by Degree Level

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work Master's Degree in Social Work Ph.D. in Social Work
  • Behavioral Management Aide
  • Case Management Aide
  • Community Outreach Worker
  • Eligibility Worker
  • Human Services Specialist
  • Juvenile court Liaison
  • Probation officer
  • Rehabilitation Case Worker
  • Child and Family Social Worker
  • Child Welfare Worker
  • Therapist/Counselor
  • Social Worker
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker
  • School Social Worker
  • Medical Social Worker
  • Social Work Supervisor
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Behavior Analyst
  • Healthcare Social Worker
  • Psychologist
  • Professor
  • Behavior Supervisor
  • Executive Director, Social Services Organizations
  • Child Welfare Researcher

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities combat difficult or stressful life situations. They work in rehabilitation centers, schools, hospitals, hospices, and correctional facilities, and often cooperate with professionals in other social service programs. They may help children with behavioral disorders, families in poverty, or victims of domestic abuse. No matter which community they serve, social workers provide care and advocate for their clients.

Although some of their roles overlap, social workers provide different services than counselors. Counselors help individuals manage a specific issue such as alcoholism, divorce, or depression. Social workers provide a wider spectrum of services to a larger and more diverse clientele. In addition to one-on-one counseling, social workers help their clients access social services like hospice care, 12 step programs, or financial assistance. Social workers do not work as private therapists, although some social workers may perform individual counseling as part of their services.

Why Pursue a Career in Social Work?

Individuals interested in a meaningful, people-centered profession should consider a career in social work. In the most basic sense, social workers help others for a living. They serve at-risk or underserved individuals, communities, and organizations. Social workers help those in need achieve their goals, access social services, and identify treatment options. Many of their clients cope with mental health issues, behavioral disorders, addiction, eating disorders, and terminal illnesses. Social workers also serve couples going through a divorce, families trying to adopt children, and students struggling in school. The career paths for social workers are as diverse as they are rewarding. In addition to a growing number of job openings, the field also boasts a competitive salary higher than the average wage for all occupations in the U.S.

Because social workers must complete continuing education credits in order to renew their state social work license, the career requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning. Many states require social workers to fulfill continuing education requirements in specific subjects like ethics, domestic violence, and suicide prevention. In this way, social workers remain up-to-date on current developments in the field.

Where Can I Work as a Social Worker?

Because social workers serve a diverse variety of populations, they work in many different settings and locations. Each social worker's place of employment depends on the industry in which they work and the population they serve. For instance, a mental health social worker may work in a psychiatric hospital or rehabilitation center, while a geriatric social worker may work in a senior living center, hospital, or community center.

Locations

Duties, requirements, and benefits for social workers vary slightly in each state. Each state creates its own licensure requirements. Social workers also experience different salary potential and quality of life depending on the state or area in which they work. For instance, social workers living in small towns and rural communities tend to earn less than those living in cities, but they also face a lower cost of living. Social workers may also serve different communities depending on their location. States like Alaska, for example, serve a high number of rural and isolated communities, while other states serve a larger-than-average population of individuals suffering from narcotics addiction or alcohol abuse.

Industries

Industry Average Salary Description
Counseling Services $45,419 Social work counselors listen to and offer support for their clients, typically in a private practice setting. They use tools like psychotherapy to assess their client's mental health. They also help clients access other other social services.
Child Welfare Services $46,755 Child welfare social workers advocate for children suffering from abuse, neglect, or disability. Those working for adoption agencies also help families with adoptions and foster care services. They work in schools, government agencies, and family service agencies.
Community Mental Health Center $46,874 This social work career path focuses on clients who suffer from mental illness. They usually work as part of a team of psychologists, therapists, and counselors. These social workers help clients find employment, housing, jobs, and other services. They also help clients with day-to-day living.
Social Services $47,212 Social services workers provide community services such as food subsidies, homeless shelters, job training, and medical care. They also help people connect to and properly use these services.
Nursing Home $49,790 Social workers in nursing homes advocate for their clients' general wellbeing. They protect elderly patients against abuse and support clients and their families through medical, financial, and emotional decisions.
Hospital $54,086 Social workers in hospitals help patients navigate the financial, emotional, and social implications of an illness or medical condition. They support patients' families and serve as a point of communication between patients, their families, and doctors.
Health Care $56,875 Health care social workers work in hospitals, clinics, outpatient health centers, and hospice centers. They help patients understand the financial, emotional, and social repercussions of their condition. Sometimes they help clients navigate medical options or create end-of-life plans.

Source: Payscale

Settings

Employer Types for Social Workers

Employer Type Average Salary Description
Fellowship $46,000 Fellowships usually support recent graduates just entering professional social work. They may also assist current graduate students in a social work program. Fellowships typically come with an annual salary, but may also provide funds for education, professional development, or travel. Fellowships often require recipients to work in a specific field, serve a particular employer, or conduct specific research.
Franchise $46,690 A franchise consists of several private healthcare facilities that agree to operate under a single brand name. Social franchises typically operate in developing countries where private clinics and healthcare facilities may not receive sufficient funding. Social workers who work for a franchise typically specialize in healthcare social work.
Non-Profit Organization $47,070 Many social workers work for nonprofit organizations such as hospitals, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, and mental health clinics. Social workers in the nonprofit sector typically earn less than those working at a private clinic or agency. However, many find nonprofit work more fulfilling.
School / School District $48,504 School social workers collaborate with teachers and administrators to help students succeed. They usually work with students who exhibit emotional, behavioral, or physical disorders that affect their academic success. They may also work with students' families to address issues at home.
Contract $51,481 Rather than working for an annual salary or for a specific company, contract social workers work on an individual contract basis. They complete specific assignments with concrete timelines. Contracts allow social workers to pursue a more flexible career. However, contract work does not typically come with the benefits or security of a salaried position.
Other Organization $51,513 Social workers may find themselves working for organizations unrelated to social services. These organizations can include companies or agencies. Social workers may take on administrative, policymaking, or public outreach roles that relate to the field of social work, but do not directly involve working with at-risk clients.
Government - State & Local $51,861 Many social workers work for state and local government agencies to provide social services to their local community. A few examples include child welfare social workers, school social workers, and probation officers. These professionals may also work in healthcare settings like clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes.
College / University $51,876 Social workers who work for colleges or universities often provide emotional counseling, therapy, or career counseling. They may also teach social work principles to college students. Some clinical social workers develop large-scale programs for college students to promote mental and physical wellbeing.
Private Practice / Firm $52,110 Social workers who work in a private practice or firm typically specialize in a particular population (i.e. children, marriage, substance abuse). They serve as clinical social workers, using psychotherapy to assess their clients' mental wellbeing. Independent clinical social workers require a special license and must first acquire significant supervised clinical experience.
Company $54,083 Social workers at for-profit, corporate companies serve a variety of functions. They provide counseling services to employees, assist with professional training, and help build stronger relationships between the business and the outside community. They may address issues like substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. They can also help employers establish a more positive work environment.
Foundation / Trust $54,832 Foundations and trusts address social needs in a given community. They typically receive funding from grants and established outside funds. Social workers who work for a foundation or trust may directly assist clients or may take on administrative roles.
Team $55,000 Team social workers collaborate with other professionals who support the same client population. For instance, geriatric social workers may work in a team alongside physical therapists, nurses, doctors, and psychiatrists to provide a comprehensive circle of care. They may also work in concert with other social workers.
Hospital $55,455 Hospital social workers help patients navigate the emotional and financial aspects of their medical condition. They work alongside doctors and nurses to make sure patients understand their condition. They also oversee the patient's discharge and post-hospital care. Hospitals offer a challenging, fast-paced work environment.
Self-Employed $58,073 Self-employed social workers do not affiliate with a pre-existing agency. They might work one-on-one with their clients, under an umbrella company, or create their own limited company. They make their own schedules and seek out their own clientele. However, they do not receive the same security and benefits as those working for an agency or organization.
Military $63,918 Military social workers work with military personnel, retirees, military families, and veterans. They address issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. They also help their clients re-enter civilian life. These social workers work for military bases, hospitals, military-related agencies, and private practices.
Government - Federal $67,263 Some social workers work with federal departments like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and the Social Security Administration. Federal government social workers provide therapy, manage cases, develop policies, and provide administrative support.

Hospital Setting for Social Workers

Setting Average Salary
School $53,772
Community / Home Health $56,473
Travelling or Agency $61,129
Other $61,476
Physician's Office / Private Practice $64,297
Military $66,300
General Hospital $69,134
Ambulatory Care / Surgery Center $69,722
Health Insurance Company $74,027
Extended Care / Nursing Home $77,731

Source: Payscale

* The above two tables show average salaries for those with a master's degree in social work.

Population Types

Social workers help diverse populations ranging from individuals to entire communities. The list below does not represent a complete list of careers in social work, but rather provides a sampling of communities that social workers typically serve. Although some social workers specialize in one particular community or a type of problem, they should understand how to provide care and advocate for a wide spectrum of clients. Social workers should understand, prepare for, and express willingness to help anyone in need.

  • Infants/Children: Social workers may advocate for children in foster care programs, help children suffering from neglect or abuse, support children going through an adoption process, or work with infants who suffer from developmental, behavioral, or emotional disorders. Many work in schools, adoption agencies, and government organizations.
  • Adolescents: Adolescents can suffer from a variety of emotional, situational, developmental, and behavioral problems. Some may live in a violent or impoverished household, while others experience depression, substance abuse, or criminal behavior. Whatever the case, social workers help at-risk adolescents achieve success and overcome their obstacles. They ensure adolescents complete their education and find a safe place to live.
  • Families: Many social workers help families in crisis. These families may face problems with substance abuse, physical violence, extreme financial stress, trauma, unemployment, or homelessness. Social workers help families locate services necessary to restore a safe and supportive setting. They connect families to counseling, job training, and mental health and substance abuse services.
  • Couples: Social workers who help couples typically intervene during some kind of crisis or dilemma. They may help couples seeking a divorce, repairing problems in their relationship, pursuing an adoption, or struggling with mental health issues. While their role usually involves therapy, they may also help couples access additional services.
  • Homeless: Social workers help homeless people locate shelters, find affordable housing, apply for jobs, and access treatment for any mental health or behavioral disorders. They may work in a homeless shelter or for a nonprofit that addresses the greater issue of homelessness.
  • Chronic Health Conditions: Social workers help those suffering from chronic health conditions manage their day-to-day life. They make sure their clients can access healthcare and manage their finances. Social workers also monitor for signs of depression or other mental illness. They may support family members and caregivers.
  • Geriatrics: Social workers who assist elderly clients typically work in hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes, mental health clinics, or community centers. They may also meet with clients in their home. These social workers help their clients with financial, medical, emotional, and social problems. They monitor for signs of abuse, neglect, and depression. They may also help clients find jobs or access medical services.

How to Become a Social Worker

Although the process of becoming a social worker varies from state to state, all social workers must complete a few fundamental steps. The first step to becoming a social worker is earning a social work degree. Jobs for social work graduates may include clinical social work or nonclinical social work. While some states allow social workers to earn a licence with only a bachelor's in social work (BSW), most states require social workers to hold a master's in social work (MSW). All clinical social workers in the U.S. must hold an MSW. A BSW typically requires four years of school, and an MSW requires an additional two years. Most MSW programs require an internship, fellowship, or fieldwork component, allowing candidates to acquire hands-on experience before applying for licensure in their state.

In order to legally practice within each state, all social workers must first earn a social work license. The licensure process varies depending on the state, as do the types of licenses available. Social workers should research and understand the licensure requirements for the state where they hope to work. To earn a license, social workers typically complete an application, pay a fee, and pass an Association of Social Work Boards exam. The exams consist of 170 multiple choice questions and cost between $230 and $260. Clinical and independent practice licenses typically require two or more years of supervised professional experience.

How Much Do Social Workers Make?

Average Salary for Popular Social Work Careers

Career Average Salary
Child and family social worker $40,064
Child welfare worker $42,442
Therapist/counselor $42,732
Social worker $44,127
Mental health and substance abuse social worker $47,830
School social worker $48,287
Medical social worker $51,306
Social work supervisor $53,555
Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) $55,521
Behavior analyst $55,746
Healthcare social worker $56,810

Source: PayScale and BLS

Average Salary for Social Workers by Experience

Experience Level Average Salary
Entry-Level, 0-5 yrs $40,000
Mid-Career, 5-10 yrs $46,000
Experienced, 10-20 yrs $51,000
Late-Career, &mt;20 yrs $55,000

Source: PayScale

Learn More About Social Work Careers

FAQs About Social Work Careers

How can I advance my career in social work?

Social workers can advance their careers by obtaining relevant experience and earning high-level degrees. A master's in social work opens up many more doors than a bachelor's degree. Social workers with a master’s can conduct clinical work and run private practices. For individuals who hold a doctorate in social work, job possibilities include high-level administrative positions and university professorships.

How can I be a better social worker?

Continuing education helps social workers stay up-to-date in their field and improve their practice. Social workers can also consider joining a professional organization to connect with other professionals, attend conferences, and receive regular publications about social work.

Is a master's in social work worth it?

Social workers who want to practice clinically must hold a master's in social work. Beyond practicing clinically or opening an independent practice, MSW-holders also have a competitive edge over BSW-holders when applying for jobs.

How much continuing education is required to maintain a social work license?

The amount of continuing education a social worker must fulfill depends upon the state in which they work. Most states require at least 10 hours per year of continuing education courses. Some states also require specific courses in subjects like ethics or domestic violence.

What degree do I need to be a social worker?

Social workers typically need a master's degree, although some states allow social workers to earn a bachelor's-level license. Clinical social workers must hold a master's in social work.

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