Careers in Social Work

Social work graduates enjoy access to ample career opportunities in a variety of practice settings and specialties, providing targeted services and support for the diverse needs of multiple populations.

While a bachelor of social work (BSW) clears a path to many entry-level positions, most social work careers require a master of social work (MSW). According to a recent workforce survey by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), job seekers with an MSW can expect to find many job opportunities.

Over 80% of MSW graduates report finding multiple positions within their local areas. Social workers willing to relocate can find even more opportunities nationally.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the overall employment for all types of social workers to grow by 13% between 2019 and 2029. The rate of job growth proves particularly strong for clinical social workers, due to the steady growth of healthcare spending and commitment to treatment options across the nation.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social work offers rewarding yet challenging careers providing help to people of all ages and backgrounds. These professionals often work in vulnerable communities, giving treatment, support, and advocacy.

Social workers might assist victims of abuse or help couples cope with divorce. They often serve as advocates, connecting veterans and other clients with essential services and resources. According to the CSWE survey, over a third of social workers holding an MSW work specifically with children and families, while 26% provide services to clients with mental health issues.

Roles and responsibilities vary by position, specialty, and degree type. BSW graduates generally hold positions with more limited responsibilities than MSWs, but they can expect to find many entry-level and nonclinical jobs, such as case managers, mental health aides, and community outreach workers.

Clinical social work, which requires an MSW and a license, leads to careers that entail much broader responsibilities, including diagnosing and treating clients struggling with difficult life challenges, from trauma and abuse to addiction and homelessness.

Where Does a Social Worker Work?

Social workers find employment in schools, government and social service agencies, ambulatory medical services, and private practice. Duties differ depending on the work setting. Social workers may spend their time working with clients in offices, traveling to schools or remote locations, or providing telehealth services through videoconferencing.

Individual and family services, local and state government, and ambulatory healthcare services employ the largest number of social workers. Over 82% of the CSWE survey respondents provide direct services to individuals, families, and groups.

More than 31% of those surveyed work for nonprofit organizations, while over 17% work for state, local, or federal government agencies. The majority of social workers in government positions work at state or local agencies. One quarter of the survey respondents work in healthcare settings: 16.3% in outpatient services, compared to 8.8% working in inpatient settings.

Understanding Micro, Mezzo and Macro Social Work Practice

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) differentiates between three systems of social work practice, each based on the Person-in-Environment Theory: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Social workers might focus on one level, or might participate in aspects of each of them.

  • Micro Social Work

    This level describes the individual focus used by licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), such as therapists or school social workers. Micro social workers address the personal experience of their clients, helping them to overcome physical, emotional, and mental health issues. LCSWs often work with vulnerable individuals, such as victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities.

  • Mezzo Social Work

    Mezzo social workers may provide services to individuals but focus primarily on the problem-solving that impacts multiple clients, or "client systems," including families, friends, community groups, and schools. Typically trained as LCSWs, mezzo social workers help clients achieve treatment goals, collaborating with other client systems and agencies, and serving as community advocates and liaisons. They may provide support services for students dealing with depression or bullying, or connect victims of abuse with legal aid and other resources.

  • Macro Social Work

    Macro social work centers on alleviating societal problems to improve the quality of life locally and nationally. Although macro social workers do not need to hold a license, they should have training in theory, research, and ethics. Employed in government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations, they conduct research, prepare policy statements, support legislation, and serve in advocacy roles that do not involve individual clients. For example, they may lobby to change healthcare laws or work with activist groups to expand programs for at-risk populations.

Entry Level Social Work Careers

Because of the projected job growth for all types of social workers, BSW graduates and graduates of associate programs can find a promising number of entry-level career opportunities in child welfare, social and human services, case management, and other positions like those described below.

Although the job market continues to favor MSW graduates, many BSWs qualify for rewarding careers at the macro level, working with a variety of community organizations, advocacy groups, and policymakers, conducting research and developing social welfare initiatives.

Child Welfare

Child welfare specialists work in government and social service agencies protecting the interests of children-at-risk, reporting suspected cases of neglect or abuse, and providing family preservation services. Their duties may include case management, crisis intervention, and advocacy. BSW graduates qualify for most positions in this field without acquiring a license. According to PayScale, child welfare specialists receive an average annual salary of $49,975, but earnings vary widely, between $31,000 and $61,000, depending on years of experience and the employer's location.

Social and Human Service Assistant

Social and human service assistants provide support to an array of clients, including children, families, the elderly, immigrants, and people with disabilities. They confer with social workers, community health managers, and other professionals to determine the kind of assistance their clients need, and follow up to ensure that their clients have the appropriate benefits and services. Social and human service assistants may enter the field with a high school or associate degree, earning a median annual salary of $35,000.

Health Educator

Working primarily in government agencies and hospitals, health educators teach people how to manage existing health conditions and how to find health services and resources. They also provide training for community health workers. Health educators need at least a bachelor's degree to enter the field but may improve their employment prospects by acquiring the certified health education specialist (CHES) credential. While these specialists earn a median annual salary of $55,220, those with the most experience, education, and credentials can make over $98,000 a year.

Social Science Research Assistant

Social science research assistants provide support for social scientists engaged in laboratory, survey, or other research projects. They may perform statistical analysis, help with data entry and management, and provide assistance preparing research reports. Scientific research organizations, higher education institutions, and government agencies offer the most employment opportunities, paying an average yearly salary of $50,420. While a bachelor's degree serves as the minimum education requirement to enter this field, social science research assistants must also possess superior writing and analytical skills and knowledge of computer software.

Social Work Case Manager

Although social work case managers do not provide direct services to clients, they perform a variety of roles at social service agencies organizing client services and files. While most social work case managers begin their careers with a BSW or related bachelor's degree, an MSW improves employment prospects. Case managers just entering the field make an annual salary of $35,400. BSW-holders with at least three years of work experience often seek the certified social work case manager (C-SWCM) credential to advance in their careers.

Social Work Careers by Specialty

Because social workers cover multiple practice areas and provide assistance to many diverse demographic groups, the field has developed several distinct specializations. While some of the careers described here require at least a BSW to qualify for employment, the MSW is considered the preferred degree for a growing number of fields.

NASW offers several advanced practice specialty certifications, primarily for MSW graduates but with some options for BSW degree-holders. These credentials enable social workers to advance their careers and increase their earning potential by meeting national professional standards that establish specialized knowledge and experience beyond the earned degree.

Geriatric Social Worker

Geriatric medical social workers find employment in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, providing services to elderly clients as they adjust to the physical and emotional aspects of aging. They offer support for senior adults coping with illness or depression and help connect them with services and resources that enhance their quality of life. NASW offers three specialized certificates for gerontological social work, including one for BSWs. Depending on the type of employer, a geriatric social worker earns an average annual salary of $41,230.

Corrections Social Worker

Corrections social workers, also known as correctional treatment specialists, play an increasingly important role as the U.S. deals with a rising incarceration rate. These specialists not only provide rehabilitative services for inmates, released prisoners, and others in the criminal justice system, but also provide support and resources for individuals and families impacted by the offenders' actions. Correctional treatment specialists, who earn a median annual salary of $54,290, may enter this field with a BSW or related degree, though MSW graduates may find greater employment and salary prospects.

Child and Family Social Worker

Child and family social workers help protect vulnerable children and families. They often work with at-risk children in danger of abuse or neglect and families in times of crisis. Child and family social workers make a median annual salary of $47,390. These specialists do not need a license or an MSW to practice, but graduate training and certification can increase earning potential. NASW has established child and family certifications for social workers who hold either a BSW or MSW.

School Social Worker

School social workers address emotional, behavioral, and social issues that interfere with a student's personal and academic development. These professionals have typically earned their MSW and obtained a state license. Some school districts may also require social workers to hold teaching credentials. The top earners in school social work make over $80,000 a year. MSW-holders may improve their salary and career prospects by pursuing the NASW certified school social work specialist (C-SSWS) credential.

Mental Health Social Worker

In collaboration with psychologists and other healthcare professionals, these social work specialists conduct evaluations, locate resources, and provide referrals for clients challenged by psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Careers in most mental health social work positions require a state license and a master's degree in order to provide clinical assessments and diagnoses. According to the BLS, mental health social workers can expect a projected 17% job growth from 2019-29, earning salaries that range between $31,790 and $82,540.

Substance Abuse Social Worker

As the rate of drug and alcohol addiction increases, substance abuse social workers find an array of employment opportunities in social service agencies, in-patient and out-patient clinics, rehabilitation facilities, and detention centers, earning an average annual salary of $51,670. Working with both individuals and groups, these licensed social workers create interventions and assess and treat addictions. Many social workers with an MSW enhance their careers and salaries by pursuing the NASW certified clinical alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs social worker (C-CATODSW) certification.

Medical or Healthcare Social Worker

Medical or healthcare social workers help patients, their families, and caretakers to understand and adapt to medical conditions and illnesses. They assess patients' emotional and medical needs, navigate insurance issues, and advocate for patients' rights. Healthcare social workers earn a median annual wage of $56,750. Social workers with an MSW may acquire the certified social worker in healthcare (C-SWHC) credential, offered through NASW, to gain public recognition of advanced skills in the field.

Clinical Social Worker

Licensed clinical social workers must possess an MSW, complete two years of supervised work experience, and pass the national exam required for state licensure. These social workers offer direct services to individuals, groups, and families. Their responsibilities include assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental and behavioral issues. Employment prospects for licensed clinical social workers remain strong, with an average annual salary of $58,390. NASW offers a career-boosting qualified clinical social worker (QCSW) credential for MSW-holders who have completed three years of postgraduate clinical experience.

Social and Community Service Manager

Working with community members, organizations, and other stakeholders, social and community service managers identify and create programs to support their constituencies. In addition to programming responsibilities, they oversee staff, write grant proposals, and assess program impacts. A BSW or a related degree in a public health field serves as the minimum education requirement for these managers, although some employers require an MSW, especially in larger organizations or those that provide multiple services. These positions offer annual salaries ranging from $41,220-$112,480, depending on experience and setting.

Social Work Postsecondary Teacher

Higher education institutions hire postsecondary teachers to train the next generation of social workers. These educators create and conduct courses, advise students, and administer program curricula. While community colleges and some four-year schools may hire teachers who hold an MSW, many colleges and universities require a doctor of social work or Ph.D. in social work for full-time employment. Depending on the type of institution, postsecondary educators in social work receive a mean annual salary of $77,910, with the highest paid professors earning over $128,350.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What field of social work pays the most?

    Compensation in the industry varies widely, depending on specialty, degree level, and type of employer. According to the BLS, social workers earn the highest salaries in local government agencies, ambulatory medical services, and state government offices. Clinical social workers, postsecondary educators, and social work administrators with graduate degrees and specialized certifications earn considerably more than those working in entry-level positions.

  • Why is social work a good career?

    As the demand for healthcare and mental health services expands across the U.S., social workers, especially those with graduate degrees and advanced certifications, find an abundance of personally fulfilling and financially rewarding careers. The BLS projects social work positions to increase overall by 13% from 2019-29, with even higher projected job growth in the mental health/substance abuse and healthcare specialties.

  • How long does it take to complete an MSW?

    Most full-time MSW programs take at least two years to complete, based on 12-18 earned credits each semester. State licensure requires two years of additional supervised clinical experience. Students in accelerated MSW programs may be able to finish all requirements in 18 months or less. Part-time programs give students the option to take one or two courses each term, taking a longer amount of time to graduate.

  • What is the difference between social work licensure and social work certification?

    Social workers planning to offer therapy in clinical settings must satisfy state licensure regulations. These requirements typically include completion of the MSW, a passing score on the national exam, and two years of supervised experience. While all states require licensure for clinical practice, specialized certifications are voluntary. Certifications, such as those available through NASW, recognize advanced knowledge, enabling social workers to distinguish themselves from others in their field.

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