A community social worker’s job is to improve conditions in their community by helping individuals and families to find appropriate social services. Also, to improve those services and increase their availability. Community social workers are most often employed by the government, although they may also be employed by NGOs and nonprofit organizations.
There are different specializations within the field of community social work. Some community social workers help those struggling with substance abuse, while others provide mental health services. Family outreach is also a possibility. In general a community social worker will help to promote and provide services to those in the community who need them the most.
The role of the community social worker
A lot of community social work involves direct action, that is interacting directly with individuals and families who need help. Some social workers interact with a community as a whole while others work with specific target groups like women, the elderly or at risk teens. Community social workers may also help with job placement.
Another aspect of a community social worker’s job is to collect data from the neighborhood. For instance, a community social worker may be tasked with finding out what a community’s most pressing concerns are, I.e. obesity (food desert), unemployment, substance abuse, etc. That data may then influence the programs that are developed and instituted within a community. Or, the data may also be used to apply for grants which the community social worker can write.
This leads to another role of the community social worker: program administration. Based on the data they (or others) collect, a community social worker may be tasked with creating programs to offer necessary services to those in need. Given their key role in the community, social workers can often be found leading task forces and coalitions.
One final note, roles may differ based on location. For example in a large city like New York, where there may be multiple community social workers in a small area, the average role for any social worker is likely to be more focused on specific tasks (the micro).
In smaller cities and towns, however, a community social worker’s role may be broader (macro). A community social worker may act as a general manager more than anything else, making decisions both big and small. That means more freedom but also more pressure and responsibility. Depending on a social worker’s strengths and what kind of job they’d like to do, they should consider how location and population density will affect the work that they do.
One of the interesting aspects of community social work is that it’s not restricted solely to the United States. There are opportunities throughout the world to serve underprivileged communities and bring real change to the areas that need it most.
Certainly there are volunteer opportunities through programs like the Peace Corps but it’s also possible to find international work for NGOs, Non-Government Organizations, operating in regions like Africa and South America. In almost any area where there is widespread poverty, food shortages and/or armed conflict, there is a demand for community social workers.
Educational requirements for community social workers
As with any other social work degree, it’s important to only take an education from a CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) accredited institution. This is the gold standard in social work education and many employers will only consider hiring a candidate if he or she received their education from a CSWE certified program.
Unlike other fields in social work, it’s possible for a candidate with only a bachelor’s in social work to start a career in the field of community social work. There is a caveat, however, in that bachelor’s degree holders typically can only perform entry level tasks within an organization. I.e. canvassing a neighborhood, organizing events or other basic functions that don’t require a high degree of skill.
That’s as opposed to candidates with a master’s in social work. Community social workers with a masters degree can expect to perform higher skilled tasks like delivering mental health services, leading organizations and interfacing with local and state leaders.
It is possible to take a masters in social work either online or through a traditional, campus-based program. When pursuing a master’s degree there are several options.
- Clinical focus masters – This degree program will be suitable for a student who wishes to apply clinical skills within a community setting. A clinical major will allow the graduate to make mental health diagnoses and refer patients to appropriate services in the community.
- Macro community practice – This degree program is better for a student who sees themselves working in a more managerial, as opposed to diagnostic, role in a community organization. This masters program will teach management skills as well as needs assessment and advocacy.
These specialized programs aside, in general most applicants with a MSW will be able to start a career as a community social worker. Since community social work is such an open-ended field, and one that can vary greatly from city to city, a community social worker needn’t specialize too much in their education.
Most community social workers will however take a licensure test referred to as a licensed master social worker. This is a state test, not a national one, so the applicant should only take it once they’ve decided which state they’d like to work in.
Where community social workers work
While we’ve mentioned that community social workers tend to work for governmental organizations, as well as NGOs, we can also mention some specific examples of where community social workers spend most of their time.
- Inter-department postings in offices like social services or child welfare
- Working closely with immigrant communities, helping immigrants to integrate into a community
- Charitable organizations
- Substance abuse centers
Why community social work can be difficult
Community social work is interesting in that the challenges that community social workers face are different than those faced by most other social workers. In the first place, since community social workers are advocating for the members of a certain community, the social worker is likely to face political pushback especially when it comes to budgeting and/or working with other community programs. Dealing with that pushback and navigating a political environment can be difficult for those who wouldn’t have imagined social work to be a political field.
A community social worker may also find themselves in a position where they need to manage other social workers. This may be difficult, especially if the community social worker is younger and less experienced than the social workers that he or she is expected to manage. To help mitigate this problem, some people recommend gaining several years of experience as a “regular” social worker before moving to a position as a community social worker.
These difficulties aside, a position as a community social worker can be easier in that community social workers don’t typically handle individual cases. That means they have a minimum exposure to the difficult, traumatic situations that normal social workers are expected to handle.
Community social worker career outlook
Social workers are in high demand and that demand is only anticipated to grow. From 2018 to 2028 the BLS projects an 11 percent growth in social worker positions across all specialties. Unfortunately there is not data which deals exclusively with community social worker positions.
Nonetheless, growth in the field of social work is projected to be more than double the average job growth across all fields, indicating there will be plenty of opportunities for new community social workers to find a job to their liking.
Community social worker salary
Unfortunately the general consensus is that community social workers earn less than other social workers, I.e. clinical social workers, hospice social workers, forensic social workers, etc. That being said there is a lot of variation in how much community social workers can expect to make and a job applicant who is willing to move may be able to find a job with better prospects in a different part of the country.
According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), in 2019 the median annual wage for a social worker was $50,470. PayScale data indicates that the average salary for a community social worker is $42,000 per year. The numbers provided by ZipRecruiter are far more promising, with a national annual average salary of $54,129 for community social workers.
These discrepancies indicate salaries for community social workers vary quite a bit, most likely depending on location. One advantage not taken into account by the data is that community social workers tend to have excellent benefit packages which can help to offset a smaller salary.
Community social worker outlook
Community social workers play a key role in the neighborhood as they coordinate local events, lead initiatives and collect data to find out what resources are needed most. Perhaps most appealing is the sheer variety of roles that a community social worker will be expected to fill, everything from writing grants to chairing councils, no two days are ever the same.
Since community social work does not require a specialized major, applicants with a MSW should be able to find work as a community social worker. That availability makes community social work a great career path for a social worker who may not enjoy dealing with individual persons and families. In any case, community social work can be very rewarding and the projected job growth is quite high all the way through 2030.