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How to Become a Social Worker

social worker
Some social workers specialize in assisting the elderly.
Credit: imageegami | Shutterstock

Social work is a growing field and a great career for those who want to benefit society with the work they do. Social workers have many responsibilities, but their overall goal is to assist people who need help solving life’s problems. They ensure that their clients have access to the resources needed to maintain well-being.

Social workers often counsel those who have been abused or who have suffered emotional trauma. There are many different kinds of social workers, each working with distinct groups of people, such as children or the elderly.

Those who wish to pursue a career in social work should understand the basics of what this work entails — such as what the responsibilities of social workers are, where they usually work, and what credentials they need — before looking for a job.

Social work jobs

There are two main types of social workers: direct-service social workers and clinical social workers. Some of their duties and responsibilities overlap, but they require different levels of education and distinct licenses. The main difference between the two is that direct-service social workers focus more on connecting people with state, federal and community resources that will better their quality of living, whereas clinical social workers focus on diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.

Many direct-service social workers are employed by state and local government agencies or other, non-government, agencies. It is their job to identify those who need help and create a plan that will assist their clients in achieving emotional and mental well-being.

Direct-service social workers often help those who are dealing with changes and challenges in their life, such as divorce, illness, unemployment or adopting a child. It is their job to connect their clients with resources such as food stamps, childcare and health care, and to serve as advocates for these services on behalf of their clients.  

Clinical social workers are responsible for diagnosing and treating disorders such as anxiety and depression. They provide individual and group therapy to those who need to talk about their emotions and experiences with someone who can provide coping strategies and ideas for improvement.

Both clinical and direct-service social workers typically work within a specific demographic. There are social workers who work with families and children, and those who work with senior citizens. Some social workers work in schools with students, parents, and teachers, or in hospitals with patients and their families. Mental health and substance abuse social workers help those with mental illness and those suffering from addiction.

Social worker salary

Although most social workers have an office, they don’t typically spend a lot of time there. Most of their time is instead spent with clients in hospitals, nursing homes, mental health and substance abuse clinics, schools and universities and military bases.

The constant travel associated with social work can be a burden for some who choose this as a career. Understaffing in government agencies and other large institutions means that social workers often have many clients at once, which can also be stressful or tiring.

However, employment of social workers is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the United States Census Bureau’s Operational Outlook Handbook, which is faster than the national average for all occupations.

Employment of social workers in the health-care industry is expected to grow even faster — by 34 percent. This growth may be due in part to the increase in demand for comprehensive healthcare and social services.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the majority of social workers work full time. Some must also be available to clients on weekends. The average median wage for social workers was $42,480 in 2010.

Becoming a social worker

The educational and licensure requirements for social workers vary depending on what kind of social work is being performed and in what state. All entry-level social work requires at least a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field, such as psychology or sociology.

Clinical social workers must also complete a master’s degree in social work program, which typically lasts two years and includes training in clinical assessment, managing simultaneous cases, and supervised fieldwork. A BSW is not required to enter a master’s in social work program, but a degree in a related field is recommended.

Clinical social workers must also be licensed in the state they wish to work. Licensure varies by state, but most states require that clinical social workers possess a master’s degree in social work along with two years, or 3,000 hours, of supervised clinical experience.

Upon completing their clinical experience, social workers must pass a state board exam to obtain their license. Licensing for nonclinical social work is optional in most states.

For more information regarding social work associations and organizations, visit the Social Work Portal.

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