Social workers interact with all sorts of people to support and empower them through difficult times. They ensure that vulnerable individuals are safeguarded from harm and they teach them how to help themselves. Mainly, they act as guides and advocates and they often need to make tough choices for the welfare of people who find themselves in dangerous situations. If you genuinely like helping others, this might just be the perfect career for you. However, there are also some downsides – mainly a certain degree of danger associated with the job – but we’ll cover those in a minute.
What do social workers do?
To put it simply, social workers help people cope with issues in their everyday lives. Their duties typically involve identifying people who need help, assessing their clients’ needs, and developing plans to improve their clients’ well-being. This usually entails finding out more about the clients’ strengths and weaknesses, figuring out if the client has any sort of support system in place, and setting goals for their clients. Social workers help people with all sorts of problems, including those who need a bit of assistance to navigate changes or challenges in their lives – like divorce, adoption, illness, unemployment, and so on.
Social workers also research and refer clients to community resources, such as food stamps, child care, and health care; they help them work with government agencies to apply for and receive benefits such as Medicare; and, depending on the nature of their job, they respond to crisis situations such as child abuse. To simplify, social workers basically advocate for and help clients get the much-needed resources that would improve their well-being. They also follow up with clients to make sure they are doing better.
Who do they work with?
There are many types of social workers out there; some work with children, others with people with disabilities; a few deal with people with serious addictions. Consequently, their work greatly varies based on the type of client they’re engaging with. Here are some details about the different types of social workers out there:
- Child and family social workers – these professionals are in charge of protecting vulnerable children and assisting families in needs. They can help parents find child care, look for a job, apply for benefits. They also interfere when children are in danger – for instance, when the little ones are neglected or, even worse, abused. In some cases, they can also help arrange adoptions and locate foster families.
- Clinical social workers – this type of social workers diagnose and treat disorder – whether mental, behavioral, or emotional. They are in charge of providing individual, couples, group, or family therapy and they work closely with clients to develop strategies that would help them deal with their problems. Additionally, they can suggest treatment plans for the client, adjust that treatment, or refer clients to other resources or services (like mental health professionals or support groups). When they have their own practice, clinical social workers are also in charge or several administrative tasks – working with insurance companies, recordkeeping, etc.
- School social workers – they work with teachers, students, parents, and school administrators. Their main task is to come up with strategies to improve students’ academic performance and social development. They also interact with children with different problems, such as aggressive behavior or bullying.
- Healthcare social workers – this type of social workers help patients come to term with a difficult diagnosis and, if necessary, make adjustments to their lifestyle. Healthcare social workers also help people smooth the transition between the hospital back to their community and provide information on services that can further help the patient cope with their illness (for example, they can recommend support groups). On the other hand, they also interact with medical personnel, helping healthcare professionals understand how a diagnosis can affect a patient’s emotional/mental health.
- Geriatric social workers – they work with senior citizens and their families. They usually help families plan for health complications, provide info about assisted living facilities or nursing home, and find suitable programs that provide seniors with meals or home health care.
- Hospice and palliative care social workers – this type of social workers help patients cope with serious illnesses – chronic or terminal. The main purpose of palliative care is to relieve or prevent pain and other symptoms associated with illnesses. Hospice, on the other hand, is a type of palliative care for people who are dying. Social workers specializing in these areas provide and find services like support groups and grief counseling.
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers – they help clients navigate life when dealing with mental illnesses or addictions. They provide info on services available (support groups, 12-step programs), or they actually organize these types of groups or programs themselves.
Where do they work?
As you can see, their work environment depends on their specializations. Social workers can work in hospitals, primary care settings, and clinics. Nursing homes, community mental health clinics, private practices, state and local governments are also known for employing social workers. They can also find employment with schools, universities, substance abuse clinics, military bases and hospitals, correctional facilities, or child welfare agencies. Social workers typically conduct their activities in an office, but they may be required to spend times visiting clients.
The job isn’t exempt of stress, as large caseloads and understaffing can translate into long hours and working weekends. Social workers work full-time and they may be required to tend to clients or attend meetings add odd hours.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most social workers, 41 percent, work for state and local government, excluding education and hospitals; 36 percent work in health care and social assistance; 15 percent for educational services; and 5 percent for religious, grantmaking, civic, professional, and similar organizations.
What’s the pay like?
According to the same source mentioned above, the median annual wage for social workers was $44,200 in May 2012. This is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,450, and the top 10 percent earned more than $72,980.
On a similar note, overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is faster than the average for all occupations. This growth will be driven by increased demand for health care and social services, but will vary by specialty. Consequently, employment of child, family, and school social workers is projected to grow 15 percent, employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 27 percent, and employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 23 percent.
Pros and cons of the job
Let’s start with the pros:
Ability to make a difference in someone’s life
People who become social workers usually find great enjoyment and satisfaction in helping others. You will get to advocate for the rights of others and help those in need on a regular basis. It’s a highly rewarding and satisfying line of work.
Although the job can involve long hours, social workers can also benefit from a certain degree of flexibility. Moreover, there’s also flexibility when it comes to specialization – you have the ability to choose from many different work environments, which can be exciting.
Since the job outlook for social workers is good, it may be easier to find employment in the field, especially if you have a high-demand specialty. Since the job market can be tough, this is an important factor to consider. Pursuing a career in social work could leave you with multiple job opportunities in the near future, which is not true of all professions.
Now, let’s move to the cons:
Long hours/low pay
Unfortunately, long/odd hours are a given. If you couple this with the fact that the salary of a social worker might not be extremely high, it’s obvious that this is a job meant only for those who truly have a genuine inclination to help others.
You will have to deal with plenty of challenges in the field, so the job can quickly become emotionally draining. While you do have the ability to help people, there will also be some individuals you won’t be able to get through to. It can be a frustrating job when the clients don’t allow you to assist them in the way you know is best.
This especially refers to social workers who work with aggressive or dangerous individuals – inmates, for instance. Social work means getting involved with various people, in such a close way can sometimes put you in harm.
Do you have what it takes?
There are several qualities that make a great social worker, but the most important one is compassion. You will deal with people in difficult situations, so you need to be able to see the world through their eyes and be empathetic. You also need great interpersonal skills, to develop strong and productive relationships with your clients. Listening skills will also come in handy since you will have to listen to people talk about the different challenges in their lives in order to better understand their needs.
On the more practical side, a good social worker has superior organizational skills. You will be required to manage multiple clients, so you need the ability to organize your files properly and remember what each client is dealing with. Problem-solving skills are also required – you need to come up with effective and sometimes innovative solutions to your clients’ issues. Last but not least, time-management skills will be of great use. Managing your time efficiently translated to providing good service to all of their clients.
How to become one
You’ve figured out what the job is all about, weighed the pros and cons, and decided this is the career for you? Great! Next, you will need a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), the most common requirement for entry-level positions. Alternatively, you could get a bachelor’s degree in a related field, like psychology or sociology. Your studies will prepare you for field work since they teach students about human behavior and welfare policy. You will be required to complete an internship or some sort of field work as part of the program.
Moreover, some positions require a master’s degree in social work (MSW) – especially if you want to become a clinical social worker or work in health care. This can take one or two years to complete and will help you develop the skills necessary to do clinical assessments and take on supervisory duties.
As far as certifications are concerned, all states have some type of licensure or certification requirement. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker usually requires a master’s degree in social work and a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after graduation. You will then need to pass a clinical exam to be licensed.
When you apply for a position as a social worker, make sure to highlight your professional accomplishments. When possible, quantify them. How many people did you help? How many proposals did your write? This helps the potential better relate to your experience in the field. Here’s a good social worker resume sample to get you inspired.
Christina Grey, MSW
15 Mindy Ansari Street
I am a young professional with a strong commitment to serving those in need – youths, adults, homeless, and special-needs individuals. I have a knack for organizational planning and experience with designing cost-effective and efficient service offerings. Moreover, I am skilled in providing reliable support to those in need and building community support. Backed by solid credentials, I’m currently looking for a position that will help me grow professionally and help me develop my skills even further.
Service Coordinator / Lead Case Manager / Case Manager
2010 – Hope for Tomorrow Homeless Shelter, New York
- Developed and maintained strong community alliances with county/state agencies, police departments and youth-service programs
- Demonstrated outstanding case management (caseload of up to 57)
- Achieved a record of 65 percent enrollment in college/job-training programs among clients
- Developed proposal and delivered presentation that won a $50,000 grant (out-competed 54 other homeless shelters and youth programs to win funding)
2002-2010 – Love for All Agency, New York
- Worked closely with children with special needs/their families and mentally handicapped consumers (ages 18 to 50) to enhance their social skills and self-esteem
- Organized multiple events that included holiday celebrations, discussion groups, community excursions
- Facilitated counseling for client family members to address special concerns
- Built community connections benefiting staff, clients and their families.
2008 – 2010 New York University
Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Bigger than Us Organization – provided therapy to children with autism (one year)
- Stay Safe Homeless Shelter – case manager (6 months)
2005-2008 New York University
BA in Psychology, Minor in Drama
Skills: Case Planning & Management, Client Advocacy, Community-Client Relations, Program Administration & Policy Development, Fundraising & Donor Relations, Licensing Issues & Regulatory Compliance, Staff Development & Supervision, Life-Skills Counseling
References: Available upon request.
As you can see, working as a social worker can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. Helping people cope with different problems they may be facing is deeply satisfying, and social work can be the perfect career for someone’s who’s empathetic and compassionate. I’m you’re passionate about caring for those in need, go for it. You will become one of the fortunate ones to make the world a better place.