Overview of social work positions
Social workers are found in a wide variety of employment settings, from hospitals to schools to prisons, performing a range of duties that are centered around helping people.
Social workers are critical resources for people experiencing many types of struggles, ranging from poverty to physical or mental illness to natural disasters.
In all these situations and roles, social workers bring a unique perspective that considers each person’s experience in the context of their larger environment (known as the person-in-environment or ecological framework) and adhere to the profession’s larger mission of promoting social justice.
Some students enter the field immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work (known as a BSW). A BSW can open doors for entry-level positions in social services agencies as caseworkers or family services workers.
In addition, a BSW can be a starting point for jobs in child welfare, public health and substance abuse. As different from other human services degrees, students with a BSW are able to pursue certifications and/or licenses that demonstrate their professional competence to employers.
Many social workers choose to pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW). An MSW increases both the social worker’s earning potential and job opportunities. Social workers with an MSW are able to perform more advanced roles, including as community organizers, school social workers, mental health therapists, military therapists, and medical social workers.
Social workers with a MSW also find opportunities to be administrators and managers in healthcare, government, and non-profit settings.
After completing a MSW, social workers may also decide to pursue a clinical license. This allows a MSW-level social worker to become a licensed clinical social worker (abbreviated as a LCSW or LICSW).
This process varies by state but generally requires at least two-years of practice after earning a MSW, a specified number of hours of supervision, and passing the ASWB clinical examination. LCSWs are able to provide clinical healthcare services, including as therapists, and are in high demand. With a clinical license, social workers also have the ability to open a private practice.
Background on social work education
Prospective social workers will want to pursue an educational program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). All state-level licensing, for both BSW and MSW level social workers, first requires completing a CSWE-accredited social work program. As of February 2020, there were 532 accredited BSW programs and 282 accredited MSW programs.
Students completing a BSW will complete courses to build the skills necessary for entry-level social work jobs. The BSW curriculum introduces students to the history of social work and social issues (such as poverty, cultural diversity, and oppression) to assist them in better understanding both the social worker’s role and their client’s experiences.
BSW students also take courses to build practical expertise that is helpful for future employment, such as clases on human behavior and development, social welfare policy, and social work research methods.
It is common for BSW programs to include practicum or field education experiences that allow students to gain real-life experience under the supervision of a professional social worker.
Many students with a BSW choose to pursue an MSW to increase their earning potential and career opportunities. Students from a range of backgrounds can pursue an MSW, but those with a BSW from a CSWE-accredited program may be eligible for advanced standing and achieve their MSW in a shorter period of time (often as little as 1 year).
Masters in social work programs challenge students to engage in in-depth learning combined with one or more field education experiences. Field education is a signature element of MSW programs and allows students to gain real-life experience in social work settings.
The social work coursework is designed to be integrated with and build upon field experiences. Effective MSW programs allow students to quickly build their skills by applying what they learn in the classroom directly into their fieldwork. Students often select field experiences to gain the skills they need to be qualified for the job they want after graduation.
MSW programs attract students from a variety of backgrounds that are seeking professional careers helping people. As such, the coursework is designed to give students the foundation they need to be professional social workers after graduation, including the history of social work, social work theory, research methods and theory, and introductions to the types of social work.
Students also build knowledge in areas such as human behavior and development, psychological theories, and core social work concepts (such as the ecological framework, empathy, and social justice). Generally, earning a MSW requires two years of full-time coursework, but most schools allow students the opportunity to take classes on a part-time basis over a longer period of time.
Students in MSW programs build upon this core curriculum with advanced coursework in a practice area (such as working with individuals, groups or families, or community organizations) and/or specialization within a practice area (such as military, hospital, or child social work).
For example, a student pursuing a specialization in child social work may complete coursework on childhood trauma, child development and disabilities, and clinical adolescent mental health. Similarly, prospective school social workers can often complete coursework during an MSW program that makes it easier to get the state-level certification they will need to obtain a job after graduation.
Field placements and experiential learning for social work students
Students with social work degrees stand apart from their peers in part because of field placements. These experiential learning opportunities are also referred to as fieldwork, internships, or practicums. Field placements are a powerful component of social work education through which students gain real-life experience under the supervision of social work professionals.
Students in field placements can receive support and guidance from both instructors and supervisors as they encounter challenges, while also better understanding what type of career will work best for them. Students can complete field placements in schools, government agencies, hospitals and many other settings.
Field placements are a component of both BSW and MSW programs. At the bachelor’s level, social work is the only degree program that requires fieldwork. While often unpaid, these internships allow BSW students the opportunity to graduate with actual employment experience in a social work field. Those wanting to learn more about how field placements help BSW graduates stand apart from other job-seekers may want to review this article.
MSW students can complete one or more field placements during the course of their studies. Many MSW programs have field education coordinators that help students locate placements in particular work settings or areas of social work practice. Students will be required to complete a specified number of hours (often 1,000-1,300) at the placement during normal business hours.
To help ensure that the student receives support and is learning from the experience, MSW programs will also require a specific amount of time for meetings between the field supervisor and student. The field education experience is often combined with a seminar that integrates the experience into the student’s larger learning process.
The field education process can be a rewarding and challenging experience. Students can find themselves confronted with demanding job responsibilities in addition to masters-level coursework.
In many instances, MSW students are called upon to develop the real world skills that are not taught in classrooms. This could involve things like having a difficult conversation with a client or supervisor, de-escalating a crisis, or learning to practice the self-care necessary to avoid burn-out. Good MSW programs often stand out by providing students the resources and support to succeed in field experiences.
Fieldwork can help round-out a curriculum, provide professional training, and lead to employment. Child welfare workers may be able to complete field placements at their current place of employment, while also obtaining Title-IV E stipends that defray tuition costs. In addition, prospective military social workers completing MSW field placements at the Veterans Affairs can receive special hiring consideration through the VA’s clinical traineeship program.
Social work students may find additional opportunities to build skills and experience through seminars and school-facilitated symposiums on social work topics. In some instances, students may be able to gain a certification or training as a result. In addition, social work professors often recruit their students to assist in ongoing research.
Social work professional organizations and resources
There are a number of professional organizations that are important to social workers. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), along with state and district level chapters of NASW, merits special mention as both a prominent organization and significant resource for social workers. There are also international social work organizations, including the International Federation of Social Workers and the Society for Social Work and Research.
There are many professional organizations that focus on sub-specialties of social work. Some examples of clinical social work organizations include the Clinical Social Work Association and the American Clinical Social Work Association.
Military social workers could consider organizations such as the Association of Veterans Affairs Social Workers.
Medical social workers could explore broader organizations, such as the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care, or those based on their specialty area of practice, such as the Association of Oncology Social Work, Society for Transplant Social Workers, the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network and The National Association of Perinatal Social Workers.
For child welfare social workers, the Children’s Bureau is particularly important. Other child and family social workers may consider organizations focusing on therapy, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Behavioral therapists may want to explore organizations such as Behavior Therapy Training Institute; The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science; and Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy (ABCT)
There are also a number of good resources related to social work education. The Council on Social Work Education is the main accrediting body for most BSW and MSW programs. For BSW social work, a good resource is the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Program Directors.
The Association of Social Work Boards is important for those wanting to gain information about BSW, MSW and clinical licensing. The ASWB has resources for comparing licensing and supervision requirements, learning about state-level rules and regulations, and understanding continuing education requirements.
Social work students and practitioners can also expand their knowledge of professional practices through resources such as The New Social Worker, The Journal on Social Work Values and Ethics, and Information for Practice.
How to find a first job in social work
Many students will use their field placements to find their future career. In some instances, MSW students are able to begin their career where they completed their field placement. The time spent in the field placement allows the student to build the actual skills and knowledge needed for the position and employers benefit by hiring staff that they know can perform.
Each school of social work can be an important resource for their students’ career search. Some employers will actively recruit social work students through the school (such as by hosting events or targeted marketing) or by participating in larger career fairs. Many social work schools will support their students’ career search through events or seminars during students’ final year of studies.
Social work jobs are posted on many of the big internet job-search websites. The NASW also has a specific career page with resources to help job seekers (such as tips for interviewing and resumes) and an online job portal. The Social Work Job Bank is another career resource that is focused exclusively on social work positions.
Students can also use targeted websites for certain industries. For example, social work jobs in the federal government, such as military social work for the VA, will be posted on the official usajobs.gov website. Similarly, social work jobs in state government, such as those in child welfare agencies, will be posted on each state’s official website.
Networking is commonly a critical component of the social work job hunt. Field placements will offer valuable networking opportunities that arise naturally as social work interns interact with professionals in the field. Similarly, students often find that their school is a source of many valuable connections, including with professors, staff, fellow students, and alumni. These human relationships continue to be one of the most reliable ways for social workers to begin and advance their careers.
A final note to consider in the career search is that some jobs will require that applicants possess a license (either as a BSW, MSW, or clinical social worker). Depending on the setting and employer’s policies, some social workers can begin employment while pursuing their license. Many states also issue provisional licenses to graduates that are valid for a specified period of time (ranging from 90 to 180 days or more). Social work students should pay attention to their state’s options and the requirements for their area of practice.
Types of social work roles
Social workers are found in a wide variety of settings, including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, hospitals and other medical settings (such as nursing homes, medical offices, etc.), schools, private companies, and in private practice.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the largest employers of social workers were: individual and family services organizations (18 percent), local government (14 percent), state government (14 percent), outpatient healthcare services (13 percent) and hospitals (11 percent).
Social workers perform a range of functions when employed by local, state or federal government entities. Some BSW graduates are employed in entry-level social services positions, such as caseworkers in social services programs. MSW level practitioners can fill a broader range of roles, including as child welfare workers, administering community programs, youth and family services or as a prison social worker.
Many social work services targeting vulnerable populations are provided through state, local and federal nonprofit organizations.
Often these organizations focus on one or more areas of need, such as poverty, drug addiction, aging, developmental disabilities, mental illness, child and family services, etc.
Some students with BSWs may find direct service opportunities in these settings, such as caseworkers. Masters-level social workers will encounter more opportunities in these settings with a wider range of duties, commonly focusing more on clinical duties (such as counseling or assessing clients). In most instances, MSWs with clinical licensure are preferred.
Social workers play a critical role at hospitals and other medical settings, including long-term care facilities, outpatient clinics, hospice or palliative care centers, medical offices and emergency rooms. In most instances, these positions will require a MSW and prefer social workers that have a clinical license. Social workers often perform roles such as case manager, discharge planner, patient advocate, care coordinator, and mental health therapist. With greater experience in this setting, social workers also fill roles as managers and administrators.
School social workers must hold a MSW and are often required to hold a clinical license. Social workers in schools can provide a range of support to students, including ongoing meetings for students with disabilities and responding to students in crises. These social workers also are critical as an expert resource on mental health (ranging from topics such as educational laws to community resources) to support families, teachers and the larger school system.
Social workers are also employed in private companies in a range of roles depending on their experience. BSW level graduates are good candidates for many entry-level human resources positions. Those with a MSW are well-positioned to help employees manage the demands of work as well as outside of work struggles that impact the workplace, such as domestic abuse or addiction. Often, MSWs with clinical licensure perform these roles as counselors in employee assistance programs.
To open a private practice, social workers will need to possess a clinical license. In private practice, social workers can target a specific population (such as children or the military), condition (such as anxiety or eating disorders) or treatment model (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or narrative therapy). With the ability to directly bill insurance companies or charge private rates for their services, LCSWs in private practice have high earnings capacity.
Summary of common social work careers
Social workers can specialize in different areas of practice, including as a school social worker, behavioral therapist, military social worker, child social worker, and medical social worker.
School social workers serve as an expert resource on mental health to assist students, teachers and staff, and families. These social workers are employed at all levels of public and private educational institutions, from preschool to high school.
School social workers promote student success by examining home, school and community factors that interfere with a student’s learning. With this unique perspective, they perform a wide variety of functions — ranging from crisis intervention to school-wide programming.
Military social workers focus on helping active duty members of the armed forces, veterans served by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), state national guard and reserves, and noncombatant service members working for some federal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). While some military social workers are active duty members within the armed services (and even deployed worldwide), others are not.
Child social workers focus on assisting children, youth, and their families. Many child social workers, particularly BSW practitioners, are employed in child welfare positions. Child welfare social workers are critical in protecting and helping abused or at-risk children and their families. Other social workers in this field focus on providing mental health counseling to children, youth, and families. These children, youth and family social workers work in a variety of organizations and settings, including government, non-profit and private practice.
Behavioral therapists work with children and adults in a range of settings. Behavioral therapists begin with the understanding that all of a person’s behaviors are learned and unhealthy actions can be changed. Behavioral therapy includes many different therapeutic approaches, ranging from aversion-therapy to cognitive-behavioral therapy. The common goal of all behavioral therapy is to help individuals identify unhealthy or potentially self-destructive behaviors and figure out ways to change them.
Medical social workers are found in hospitals as well as general care and a variety of specialized medical facilities. In these settings, social workers are a critical resource for patients and their families as they attempt to understand an illness, process difficult emotions, and reach informed decisions about their future. Medical social workers perform duties such as case management, care coordination, patient education, individual or group therapeutic support, or serve in leadership positions.
In increasing numbers, social workers are called upon to provide their services remotely. This is particularly true for mental health counseling services, which have been provided via telephone or videoconference for a number of years. The American Psychological Association is a good resource for those wanting to learn more about online therapy. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a significant expansion of telemental health services. This may well change the practice of social work moving forward.
Related certifications for social workers
Social workers can pursue a number of certifications to demonstrate knowledge in a specialized area of practice or proficiency in a particular therapeutic model.
Clinical social workers with 3 years of post-MSW experience and at least 30 hours of continuing education may pursue NASW’s Qualified Clinical Social Worker credential.
Behavior therapists may consider certifications in specific therapeutic interventions, such exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) or dialectical behavioral therapy (such as through the Evergreen Certification Institute or the Treatment Implementation Collaborative). The popularity of cognitive-behavioral therapy has led to a wide variety of training and certification options, such as the National Association of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist’s four levels of certification or various trainings at the Beck Institute.
Child social workers at the BSW level may apply through the NASW to become Certified Children, Youth and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW). Child social workers with a MSW can follow the NASW’s process to become a Certified Advanced Children, Youth & Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW).
Most school social workers will need to obtain a state-specific certification to work in the school setting. This may require the completion of certain coursework or additional training after graduation. Each state’s education department or board of education will detail these requirements.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for social workers was $49,470 as of May 2018. There was wide variability in social worker earnings, however, with the top 10 percent earning more than $81,400 and the lowest 10 percent less than $30,750.
NASW research revealed a number of variables that will impact the salary of social workers. Education level is a significant factor, and MSW salaries are at least $13,000 higher than BSW salaries. Experience also matters, and the NASW estimates that each year of professional social work experience is associated with an increase in $419 in salary.
Generally, social workers earn more in settings such as research organizations, government agencies, and hospital inpatient facilities. Job location also matters, and MSWs earn the highest salaries in large cities or urban areas. Licensed clinical social workers in private practice have the highest salaries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data for some social work areas of focus that helps demonstrate salary differences. As of May 2018, social workers in hospital settings earned the highest median annual wages at $60,100, compared to $54,430 for those in local government positions, $48,590 for state government positions, and $41,810 for social workers in individual and family services settings.
NASW’s 2015 profile of the social work workforce adds more layers to how a social worker’s area of focus can impact salary. This showed the median MSW salary for some popular social work specialties, such as: $69,000 for national security and international affairs; $60,000 for elementary and secondary school social workers; $51,000 for administrators of HR programs; $46,300 in nursing care facilities; $45,000 in individual and family services roles; $40,000 for outpatient care settings; and $36,000 for community food, housing and emergency services.
Career outlook for social workers
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that careers for social workers will increase by 11 percent between 2018-2028. This job growth will vary depending on the social worker’s area of speciality.
Employment opportunities for medical social workers are expected to expand by 17 percent between 2018-2028. This growth is driven by increasing medical needs associated with the United States large aging population and greater spending for healthcare services.
Behavior therapists, child and family social workers, and military therapists are part of the larger group of mental health and substance abuse social workers that is predicted to increase by 18 percent between 2018-2028. Social workers with these specialities are needed as more people seek treatment for mental health and substance abuse concerns. This demand for services is also driven by military veterans and increasing use of mental health treatment in criminal justice settings.
Child welfare social workers and school social workers are part of a larger segment of the social work industry that is expected to grow at a rate of 7 percent from 2018-2028. While there is no less need for these social workers, future job opportunities could be constrained by federal, state and local budget limitations. Clinical social workers have particularly good career outlook. As explained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the continuing growth of healthcare spending increases the opportunities for clinical social workers as compared to social workers who do not offer treatment services.”