What Are the Highest Paying Specialties in the Field of Social Work?

By Staff Writer
Last Updated: October 8, 2020

Social workers play an essential role in our society, providing guidance and services to people who need it. Social workers help people who face challenges, including veterans, the homeless, people with substance abuse issues, and children facing neglect or abuse.

As a whole, the number of social workers could increase by 13% from 2019-29, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS projects 14% growth for healthcare social workers and 12% growth for child, family, and school social workers. Plus, the growth rate for mental health and substance abuse social workers could reach 17%, BLS figures show.

This guide takes an in-depth look at social worker salaries and explores how factors like degree level, speciality, and location can affect earnings. You'll also learn about the highest paying social work jobs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are social worker jobs in high demand?

    Yes. As of 2019, over 713,000 people worked as social workers, BLS data shows. The decade following 2019 could lead to an additional 90,700 social worker jobs. The projected growth of 13% outpaces the national average, according to the BLS. That's in part due to rising student enrollments and an increased focus on treatment services instead of prison sentences for drug offenders.

  • Which social worker field pays the most?

    Several social work professions pay above the median social worker salary of $50,470. Licensed clinical social workers earn an average pay of $58,518, according to data from Payscale. Payscale data also shows that Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors bring home average earnings of $57,685, and social service administrators earn an average salary of about $69,250, which is among the highest paying social work jobs.

  • Will social worker salaries increase?

    Social workers salaries have increased over the past several years. In 2016, BLS data showed that social workers earned an average salary of $46,890. That increased by more than $3,500 by 2019, which rose more than the value of inflation between 2016-19. Although it's impossible to predict the future, if current trends continue, social workers can expect their salaries to increase.

  • How does a social worker's salary compare to a counselor's salary?

    The median social worker's salary was higher than the median earnings of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in 2019. While social workers made a median salary of $50,470, counselors earned a median salary of $46,240.

Highest Paying States and Industries for Social Workers

Social work salaries vary depending on several factors, including location and industry. Washington, D.C., offers some of highest-paying social work jobs, with healthcare social workers earning an annual mean wage of $74,160; child, family, and school social workers earning $71,590; and mental health and substance abuse workers bringing home $66,080, according to the BLS.

Healthcare social workers also make high annual mean salaries in California ($79,620), Oregon ($74,050), Connecticut ($72,980), and Nevada ($72,640). Child, family, and school social workers earn annual mean salaries ranging from about $62,000-$69,000 in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers earn the highest salaries in New Jersey, where the annual mean wage reaches $83,050. Other top-paying states include California, Connecticut, and New York, where these professionals make mean salaries ranging from about $63,500-$65,000.

In Hawaii, social workers in other specializations earn an annual mean wage of $81,520. These social workers make average wages ranging from about $73,830-$74,520 in the other top-paying states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Georgia.

In terms of industry, healthcare social workers can find high-paying jobs working for computer systems design, religious organizations, junior colleges, general medical and surgical hospitals, and other ambulatory healthcare services. Mean income for these industries ranges from about $65,000-$74,800.

Child, family, and school social workers can also land a well-paying job at junior colleges, where they earn an annual mean wage of $64,110. They can also earn higher-than-average salaries at elementary and middle schools, home healthcare services, technical and trade schools, and employment services.

Finally, mental health and substance abuse social workers earn the highest wages while working at insurance carriers, specialty hospitals, other ambulatory and healthcare services, healthcare practitioners offices, and higher education institutions. Mean salaries for these industries range from $61,250-$68,650.

How Education Affects Social Worker's Salary

Colleges and universities offer several types of degrees for social workers. Those include a bachelor of social work (BSW), master of social work (MSW), doctor of social work (DSW), or a Ph.D. in social work.

Social workers often start with a BSW, which can help graduates land entry-level social work jobs like case managers or behavioral management aids. Licensed social workers almost always need to obtain an MSW degree. Clinical social work — which typically comes with higher salaries — also requires an MSW and additional supervised work experience, licensure, and sometimes certification.

Generally speaking, higher-level degrees lead to higher social worker salaries. A community outreach officer — a job that only requires a BSW — earns a median salary of about $43,640. Case managers, who also need a BSW, bring home median wages of about $39,212.

In contrast, clinical social work requires an MSW and comes with a median salary of $56,200. Someone who earns a terminal degree like a DSW or Ph.D. in social work may become a professor of social work and can earn a median annual wage of $68,300.

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs in Social Work?

The following list includes information about social worker salaries, work responsibilities, and educational requirements. You can find a more in-depth exploration of these jobs with this social work careers resource.

Social Work Teacher

Social work teachers work as faculty members and professors at colleges or universities. They can teach at community college, undergraduate, or graduate levels. These professionals lead classes and lectures about social work and may also carry out social science research, testing hypotheses about the effectiveness of various social work methods or programs. Professors take on additional responsibilities as student advisors, including hosting office hours and writing recommendation letters. Teachers need a doctoral degree in order to work at the postsecondary level. You can find more information about social work professors here.

Salary: $68,300 median annual wage

Healthcare Administrator

Healthcare administrators oversee operations at various health service or public health facilities. They supervise workers, set goals to improve the quality of healthcare services, and develop strategies to meet those goals. These professionals might come from health, medical, or social services backgrounds and typically possess at least a bachelor's degree, but often a master's degree in health administration or management, as well.

Salary: $68,954 median annual salary

Social and Community Service Manager

These professionals work in leadership or management positions at various social and community organizations, including nonprofits and local government agencies. Some of these managers work in roles supervising social workers. Generally speaking, these managers can find employment with a bachelor's degree in an area like social work or business administration. Some employers prefer job candidates with a master's degree. For more information about social and community service managers, read this guide.

Salary: $67,150 median annual salary

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers work with patients undergoing certain illnesses and medical conditions. These social workers are not medical professionals; they provide resources to help patients deal with their disease or illness. They might connect patients to support groups, or they could help patients adjust to a new living situation like hospice care. Like other social workers, those who specialize in healthcare need both a BSW and an MSW. They also need state licensure to legally practice. Read more about healthcare social worker jobs with this resource.

Salary: $56,750 median annual salary

School Counselor

School counselors guide students in elementary, middle, and high schools. They might help children who experience difficult home lives affecting their ability to succeed with their schoolwork; many of these responsibilities are similar to child and family social workers' duties. This guide provides more details about the job. You can become a school counselor with a master's degree in school counseling or a related field. Some students use an undergraduate degree in social work to prepare for this master's degree. School counselors also need state licensure to practice.

Salary: $56,310 median annual wage

Clinical Social Worker

Unlike other social workers, clinical social workers can actually diagnose mental and behavioral disorders. They can also treat clients through therapy, and they may consult with doctors or other healthcare professionals. The position requires excellent communication, interpersonal, and analytical skills; you can read more about that here. After clinical social workers earn a bachelor's and master's degree, they must obtain a special type of clinical social work license.

Salary: $56,200 median annual salary

Health Educator

Health educators teach people in their communities about public health concerns. They also use their platform to promote wellness to better a community's health. Health educators play an essential role during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. These professionals can usually find employment with a bachelor's degree in health education or health promotion. Some positions also require a master's degree in areas like epidemiology or social work with a health specialization.

Salary: $54,220 median annual wage

School Social Worker

School social workers take on roles similar to school counselors. However, these professionals work specifically with at-risk children, usually in elementary and middle schools. They help students overcome social and psychological factors that might hinder the students' educational progress, working in conjugation with teachers and parents. This school social worker guide explores the job in more depth. School social workers often need an undergraduate and graduate degree in social work or psychology with a concentration in education.

Salary: $47,390 median annual wage

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker

The U.S. criminal justice system is increasingly turning to drug and alcohol treatment systems instead of sentencing people with addictions or substance abuse issues to jail. This is where mental health and substance abuse social workers come in. They provide treatment to individuals dealing with these issues along with other debilitating mental issues like major depression. These social workers need a BSW, MSW, and social work licensure. Additionally, if they wish to provide therapeutic treatments, they need clinical licensure.

Salary: $46,650 median annual salary

Child and Family Social Worker

These professionals provide services to families who need help in some way. For instance, these social workers might connect families to food stamps or housing services. They also assist children experiencing abuse or neglect. They may place these children in foster homes or help them through the adoption process. You can read more details about this job here. The road to becoming a child and family social worker involves earning both a bachelor's and master's degree in social work. These professionals often need state licensure, as well.

Salary: $46,270 median annual wage