Career Information

  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for many entry-level jobs; however, a master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally required for advancement.
  • Employment is projected to grow faster than average.
  • Competition for jobs is stronger in cities where training programs for social workers are prevalent; rural areas often find it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff

Social work is a profession for those with a strong desire to help people. Social workers help people deal with their relationships with others; solve their personal, family, and community problems; and grow and develop as they learn to cope with or shape the social and environmental forces affecting daily life. Social workers often encounter clients facing a life-threatening disease or a social problem requiring a quick solution. These situations may include inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of job skills, financial distress, serious illness or disability, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, or antisocial behavior. They also assist families that have serious conflicts, including those involving child or spousal abuse.

Social workers practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, from the obstetrics unit to the intensive care unit; in schools, helping children, teachers, and parents cope with problems; in mental health clinics and psychiatric hospitals; and in public agencies, from the employment office to the public welfare department. Through direct counseling, social workers help clients identify their concerns, consider solutions, and find resources. Often, they refer clients to specialists in various areas, including debt counseling, child care or elder care, public assistance or other benefits, or alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs. Social workers typically arrange for services in consultation with clients, following through to assure the services are helpful. They may review eligibility requirements, fill out forms and applications, arrange for services, visit clients on a regular basis, and provide support during crises.

Most social workers specialize-for example, in child welfare and family services, mental health, or school social work. Clinical social workers offer psychotherapy or counseling and a range of services in public agencies and clinics, and in private practice. Other social workers are employed in community organization, administration, or research.

Those specializing in child welfare or family services may counsel children and youths who have difficulty adjusting socially, advise parents on how to care for disabled children, or arrange for homemaker services during a parent's illness. If children have serious problems in school, child welfare workers may consult with parents, teachers, and counselors to identify underlying causes and develop plans for treatment. Some social workers assist single parents, arrange adoptions, and help find foster homes for neglected, abandoned, or abused children. Child welfare workers also work in residential institutions for children and adolescents.

Social workers in child or adult protective services investigate reports of abuse and neglect and intervene if necessary. They may institute legal action to remove children from homes and place them temporarily in an emergency shelter or with a foster family.

Mental health social workers provide services for persons with mental or emotional problems, such as individual and group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and training in skills of everyday living. They may also help plan for supportive services to ease patients' return to the community. (Counselors and psychologists, who may provide similar services, are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Health care social workers help patients and their families cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses and handle problems that may stand in the way of recovery or rehabilitation. They may organize support groups for families of patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, or other illnesses. They also advise family caregivers, counsel patients, and help plan for their needs after discharge by arranging for at-home services-from meals-on-wheels to oxygen equipment. Some work on interdisciplinary teams that evaluate certain kinds of patients-geriatric or organ transplant patients, for example.

School social workers diagnose students' problems and arrange needed services, counsel children in trouble, and help integrate disabled students into the general school population. School social workers deal with problems such as student pregnancy, misbehavior in class, and excessive absences. They also advise teachers on how to deal with problem students. Criminal justice social workers make recommendations to courts, prepare pre-sentencing assessments, and provide services for prison inmates and their families. Probation and parole officers provide similar services to individuals sentenced by a court to parole or probation.

Occupational social workers generally work in a corporation's personnel department or health unit. Through employee assistance programs, they help workers cope with job-related pressures or personal problems that affect the quality of their work. They often offer direct counseling to employees whose performance is hindered by emotional or family problems or substance abuse. They also develop education programs and refer workers to specialized community programs.

Some social workers specialize in gerontological services. They run support groups for family caregivers or for the adult children of aging parents; advise elderly people or family members about the choices in such areas as housing, transportation, and long-term care; and coordinate and monitor services.

Social workers also focus on policy and planning. They help develop programs to address such issues 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.

Although some social workers work a standard 40~hour week, many work some evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings, and handle emergencies. Some, particularly in voluntary nonprofit agencies, work part time. They may spend most of their time in an office or residential facility, but may also travel locally to visit clients or meet with service providers. Some have several offices within a local area. The work, while satisfying, can be emotionally draining. Understaffing and large caseloads add to the pressure in some agencies.

Social workers held about 585,000 jobs in 1996. About 4 out of l0 jobs were in State, county or municipal government agencies, primarily in departments of health and human resources, mental health, social services, child welfare, housing, education, and corrections. As government increasingly contracts out social services, many jobs ate likely to shift from government to private organizations in the future. Most jobs in the private sector were in social service agencies, community and religious organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, or home health agencies. Although most social workers are employed in cities or suburbs, some work in rural areas.

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for many entry-level jobs. Besides the bachelor's in social 'work (BSW), undergraduate majors in psychology, sociology, and related fields satisfy hiring requirements in some agencies, especially small community agencies. A master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally necessary for positions in health and mental health settings. Jobs in public agencies may also require an MSW. Supervisory, administrative and staff training positions usually require at least an MSW. College and university teaching positions and most research appointments normally require a doctorate in social work.

In 3996, the Council on Social Work Education accredited over 430 BSW programs and over 1.30 MSW programs. There were 55 doctoral programs for Ph.D.'s in social work and DSW's (Doctor of Social Work). BSW programs prepare graduates for direct service positions such as case worker or group worker They include courses in social work practice, social welfare policies, human behavior and the social environment, and social research methods. Accredited BSW programs require at least 4% hours of supervised field experience.

An MSW degree prepares graduates to perform assessments, manage cases, and supervise other workers. Master's programs usually last 2 years and include 900 hours of supervised field instruction, or internship. Entry into an MSW program does not require a bachelor's in social work, but courses in psychology, biology, sociology, economics, political science, history, social anthropology, urban studies, and social work are recommended. In addition, a second language can be very helpful. Some schools offer an accelerated MSW program for those with a BSW.

Since 1993, all States and the District of Columbia have had licensing, certification, or registration laws regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Standards for licensing vary by State. In addition, voluntary certification is offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which grants the title ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Worker) or ACBSW (Academy of Certified Baccalaureate Social Worker), to those who qualify. For clinical social workers, who are granted the title QCSW (Qualified Clinical Social Worker), professional credentials include listing in the NASW Register of Clinical Social Workers. Advanced credentials include the NASW Diplomat in Clinical Social Work, and School Social Work Specialist. An advanced credential is also offered by the Directory of American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work Credentials are particularly important for those in private practice; some health insurance providers require them for reimbursement.

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 offer ways of testing one's interest in this field.

Advancement to supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director of a social service agency or department is possible but generally requires an MSW degree and related work experience. Although some social workers with a BSW may be promoted to these positions after gaining experience, some employers choose to hire managers directly from MSW programs that focus specifically on management. These graduates often have little work experience but have an understanding of management through their education and training. Other career options for social workers include teaching, research, and consulting. Some 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 through health insurance. Private practitioners must have an MSW and a period of supervised work experience. A network of contacts for referrals is also essential.

Employment of social workers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2006. The number of older people, who are more likely to need social services, is increasing rapidly. In addition, growing concern about crime, juvenile delinquency, and services for the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, AIDS patients, and individuals and families in crisis will spur demand for social workers. Many job openings will also stem from the need to replace social workers that leave the occupation.

As hospitals increasingly emphasize early discharge of patients in an effort to control costs, more social workers will be needed to ensure that the necessary medical and social services are in place when individuals leave the hospital. Social worker employment in home health care services is growing, not only because hospitals are releasing patients earlier, but because a large and growing number of people have impairments or disabilities that make it difficult to live at home without some form of assistance.

Employment of social workers in private social service agencies will grow, but not as rapidly as demand for their services. Agencies will increasingly restructure services and hire more lower-paid human service workers instead of social workers. Employment in government may grow in response to increasing needs for public welfare and family services; however, many of these jobs will be contracted out to private agencies. Additionally, employment levels will depend on government funding for various social service programs.

Employment of school social workers is expected to grow, due to expanded efforts to respond to rising rates of teen pregnancy and to the adjustment problems of immigrants and children from single-parent families. Moreover, continued emphasis on integrating disabled children into the general school population will lead to more jobs. Availability of State and local funding will dictate the actual job growth in schools, however.

Opportunities for social workers in private practice will expand because of the anticipated availability of funding from health insurance and public-sector contracts. Also, with increasing affluence, people will be better able to pay for professional help to deal with personal problems. The growing popularity of employee assistance programs is also expected to spur demand for private practitioners, some of who provide social work services to corporations on a contractual basis.

Competition for social worker jobs is stronger in cities where training programs for social workers are prevalent; rural areas often find it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff.

Based on limited information, social workers with an MSW had median earnings of about $35,000 in 1997, while social workers with a BSW earned about $25,000. According to a Hay Group survey of acute care hospitals, the median annual salary of full-time social workers with a master's degree was $35,000 in 1997. The middle 50 percent earned between $32,300 and $38,700. The average annual salary for all social workers in the Federal Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was about $46,900 in 1997.

Through direct counseling or referral to other services, social workers help people solve a range of personal problems. Workers in occupations with similar duties include the clergy, mental health counselors, counseling psychologists and social and human service assistants.

For information about career opportunities in social work, contact:
National Association of Social Workers, Career Information, 750 First St. NE., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20002-4241.
National Network For Social Work Managers, Inc., 1316 New Hampshire Ave. NW., Suite 602, Washington, DC 20036.

An annual Directory of Accredited BSW and MSW Programs is available for a nominal charge from:
Council on Social Work Education, 1600 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 223