Describing a social worker's job isn't easy. The description depends on whether one is talking about a direct-service or a clinical social worker, and then on the population he or she serves and on his or her work environment. A direct-service social worker helps people cope with challenges they are facing in their lives. Clinical social workers are therapists who diagnose and then treat individuals who have mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.
In 2010 there were 650,500 people employed as social workers in the United States. 296,000 were child, family and school social workers who were primarily employed by entities that provide services to individuals and families, state and local governments, and schools. 153,000 were healthcare social workers who were mostly employed by hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, organizations that provide services to individuals and families, and home healthcare services firms. 126,000 were mental health and substance abuse social workers whose employers were typically outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, entities that provide services to individuals and families, and hospitals.
To become a social worker you will have to go to college. For most entry-level direct-service jobs, you need a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW), but sometimes you can get a job with a degree in psychology or sociology. If you want a clinical career, however, a master's degree (MSW) is a must.
All states and the District of Columbia require social workers to be either licensed, certified or registered. Requirements vary by state and apply to practice and use of professional titles. See the Social Work Career Center for a list of state licensing agencies.
There are certain qualities that will help a social worker be more successful in his or her career. One should be compassionate, a good listener and able to work with different groups of people. The large caseload that is common for many social workers make good time management and organizational skills a necessity.
With related work experience and an advanced degree, a social worker may move up to a position as supervisor, program manager, assistant director, or executive director of a social service agency or department.
Employment of social workers of all types is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2020, with the greatest growth expected for healthcare social workers and the least for child, family and school social workers.
Social workers' earnings varied according to their area of specialization. Here are the median annual salaries and wages for social workers, employed in different specialties, as of 2011:
Child, Family and School Social Workers: $40,680/$19.56
Healthcare Social Workers: $48,620/$23.37
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: $39,230/$18.86
All Other Social Workers: $53,900/$25.91
Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much social workers currently earn in your city.
A Day in a Social Worker's Life?:
On a typical day, a direct-service social worker's tasks might include:
- assessing a client's needs to determine if he or she needs help, what his or her goals are and who he or she can count on for support
- developing plans to assist a client
- referring clients to community resources
- helping clients get the help they need from government agencies
- responding to crises
- following up with clients
A clinical social worker's tasks, on a typical day, might include:
- evaluating a client for mental, behavioral and emotional disorders
- diagnosing a client's disorder and developing a treatment plan
- delivering therapy to individuals, families and couples
- referring clients, as necessary, to other resources
- evaluating the effectiveness of therapy
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Social Workers, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm (visited August 10, 2012).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Child, Family, and School Social Workers, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1021.00, Healthcare Social Workers, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1022.00, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1023.00 and Social Workers, All Other, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/21-1029.00 (visited August 10, 2012).