How to Become a Social Worker

How to Become a Social Worker

Table of Content

Becoming a social worker means preparing to confront some of the most vital, challenging, and important issues facing our country, and doing so on a person-to-person basis. From dissecting the underlying causes and addressing the impacts of poverty, hunger, joblessness, and other social ills, to working to improve the lives of good people struggling with various setbacks, social workers bring assistance and counsel to people in need in a broad range of settings. They help clients navigate severe and/or chronic illness, substance abuse, divorce, and other family disruptions, intervene in cases of child abuse and neglect, and aid veterans in the sometimes difficult transition back to civilian life. They also work with children, the elderly, the disabled, and other groups that require special consideration and services. And, social workers can be instrumental in assessing eligibility for and directing clients to health care, food stamps, childcare, and other crucial social services.

In the words of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), "They help prevent crises and counsel individuals, families, and communities to cope more effectively with the stresses of everyday life." Given that broad mandate, it's not surprising that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment for social workers to grow at a faster than average rate of 19 percent through the year 2022. Indeed, as we'll see, the demand for well-trained, fully licensed social workers is even more acute in the healthcare industry, and in the realm of mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Steps to Becoming a Social Worker

Because of the serious and often sensitive nature of social work, becoming a social worker requires cultivating a unique set of skills through rigorous and targeted study and training. We'll get into the details of social worker education and training below. But first let's outline the basic, most direct steps to becoming a licensed professional in this expanding and rewarding field.

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW), or a BA/BS in a related field, like psychology or sociology
  2. Enroll in an accredited master's degree program for social work (MSW)
  3. Complete two years/3000 hours of supervised training as a social worker
  4. Pass the Association of Social Work Board's (ASWB) licensing exam

What Do Social Workers Do?

In its mission statement, the National Association of Social Workers offers a broad view of the profession: "Social workers help individuals, families, and groups restore or enhance their capacity for social functioning, and work to create societal conditions that support communities in need."

The BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) echoes this assessment, stating that, "Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives." This can take on many forms and job descriptions, from providing counseling and crisis assistance to children, families, and the elderly, to advocating for groups of people, like veterans, in need of critical social services and support. Social workers assist in adoptions and the placement of children at risk in foster families; they help those struggling with substance abuse and chronic illnesses; and they offer support and guidance to people looking to reenter the workforce, obtain food stamps, or cope with grief and trauma.

Where social workers are employed, according to the BLS's OOH, 2014-2015

State and local government41%
Health care and social assistance36%
Educational services15%
Religious, grantmaking, civic, and professional organizations5%

Types of Social Workers

To help clarify the role of social workers, the OOH defines several areas of specialization and sub-specialization in the field. Here's a breakdown of some of the specific jobs that are open to those considering a career in social work:

  • Child and Family Social Workers specialize in helping families and children in need of assistance. This can include everything from arranging adoptions, to assisting in foster family placement, to intervening in cases of child abuse, as well as counseling families in the midst of a crisis brought on by divorce, illness, unemployment, or substance abuse. They may work in schools or in local, state, or federal governmental agencies, as well in private practice and community clinics.
  • Clinical Social Workers provide first-line treatment to individuals and families struggling with mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, through counseling and therapy. They may refer clients to other healthcare professions, help coordinate various healthcare and psychological service for a client, and then monitor and assess treatment plans in tandem with doctors, psychologists, and other service providers. Clinical social workers find employment in government agencies, the healthcare industry, research and policy institutions, and the private and non-profit sector.
  • School Social Workers play a vital role in providing counseling and developing programs for students at all levels of the educational system, from primary, secondary, and high school, to college and university. Some of the hot-button issues that social workers address through their work in schools are bullying, truancy, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.
  • Healthcare Social Workers are integral to the functioning of hospitals and medical clinics. They work with doctors, nurses, and other allied healthcare professionals to help patients understand difficult diagnoses, and offer the tools and information needed for patients to adjust their lifestyle, diet, work schedule, and housing. Within the healthcare sector, there are three areas of further specialization for social workers:
    1. Geriatric Social Workers, who offer counsel and assistance to elderly patients and their families.
    2. Hospice Social Workers, who help patents with chronic and/or terminal illnesses cope with the difficult transition from hospital to palliative care, whether it's in a critical or long-term nursing facility, or at home.
    3. Medical Social Workers, who work alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals to help patients and their families link to community service agencies and plan for post-treatment challenges.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers are trained to work with patients suffering from the effects of various emotional, behavioral, and health issues, including alcohol and drug dependency and abuse.

What Education Does a Social Worker Need?

Because social workers play such an important role in addressing and managing many of today's most pressing societal concerns, there are strict rules governing who can become a social worker. These are mandated on the state level throughout the U.S., and can vary somewhat from state to state. It is important to realize when setting out on a path to becoming a social worker, that in almost all cases states do require a master's degree for full licensure, and that is the surest route to obtaining the best jobs in the field. It's also worth noting that becoming a social worker requires a certain amount of compassion, well developed listening and interpersonal skills, and the ability to think creatively as well as analytically.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement necessary to begin working as a social worker at an entry level. There are two-year associates degree programs in social work, but they primarily serve as a stepping stone to the completion of a four-year BA or BS in social work.

The four-year bachelor's degree in social work, often designated as a BSW, prepares students for what the BLS terms "direct-service positions," such as caseworker and mental health assistant. "These programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, and social welfare policy," the BLS explains. "All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship."

Coursework in a typical BSW program should cover the following:

  • Introduction to Social Work, Social Policies, and Social Programs
  • Social Work Assessment and Counseling with Individuals and Families
  • Models of Human Behavior and Social Development
  • Analytical Methods in Social Policy
  • Social and Economic Justice and Diversity
  • Ethics of Social Work

Master's Degree in Social Work

While a BSW is a fine way to attain entry-level positions, most jobs for social workers, particularly in the realm of healthcare and education, require the completion of a two-years master's in social work (MSW) for full licensure. For most MSW programs, a bachelor's degree in almost any discipline is acceptable. The BLS's OOH does point out that undergraduate coursework in the behavioral sciences (psychology and sociology) is recommended. Classes in economics and political science can be helpful as well.

As part of a master's degree in social work, students learn clinical assessment skills and are expected to develop an area of specialization in social work. For example, a master's program may allow students an opportunity to focus on social work with adult and aging populations, children and families, or community and business organization. Or, it might allow for specialization in healthcare social work, school social work, or substance abuse and mental health social work. And, there are programs that divide the work of social workers between direct practice with families/individuals, and management/public policy practice in communities.

Whether you're looking into a master's or bachelor's degree program in social work, it's important to inquire as to whether the school has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the non-profit national association that is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education. As of June 2015, the CSWE listed 506 accredited baccalaureate programs, and 238 accredited master's degree programs in social work.

Getting Licensed as a Social Worker

Licensure is an important part of becoming a social worker. Requirements vary from state to state, but all clinical social workers must be licensed to practice. Positions in education and healthcare social work are generally only open to those with licenses.

The basic requirements for licensure are the completion of a two-year master's degree program, plus two years, or 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience. The standard licensing exam is a four-hour, 170-question, multiple-choice exam designed and administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). The ASWB also offers a bachelor's level exam, but it does not confer the status of clinical social worker.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers additional certifications, which can be helpful for job placement and advancement in the field. And there are also PhD programs in social work for those interested in upper level jobs, including teaching and research positions. The NASW provides further information on certifications and continuing education in social work.

Job Outlook for Social Workers

Overall, the BLS projects a robust 19 percent job growth for social workers through 2022, adding 114,100 to the already 607,300 employed in the field. In spite of budgetary constraints at the federal, state, and local level, employment in child, family, and school social work is estimated to go up by only slightly less -- 15 percent -- due in large part to rising student enrollments.

In contrast, the BLS projects that jobs for healthcare social workers will grow by 27 percent, funded by ongoing expansion in the private sector. Better access to healthcare and medical insurance, as well as the aging of the baby boomer generation, are two of the main factors increasing the demand for social workers to help people and families handle the challenges of chronic and/or severe medical conditions and end-of-life care. And, jobs in the area of mental health and substance abuse social work are expected to increase 23 percent, which reflects a trend toward mandating treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenders in the criminal justice system.

Average annual salary for social workers - BLS's - May 2014

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
Child, Family, and School Social Workers$46,180
Healthcare Social Workers$53,590
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers$45,829
Social Workers, All Others$58,410
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