If the idea of assisting people as they navigate big social problems appeals to you, then you may be interested in a career in social work. Social workers provide services, strategies, and support to individuals, families, and organizations. They help others navigate macro-problems, such as abuse, addiction, and poverty, on a micro-level. Social workers can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, schools, community centers, law offices, mental health clinics, clinical settings, private practices, military bases, religious organizations, children and youth organizations, and other facilities.
Social workers work with individuals to help them analyze their relationships, families, communities, and social systems so they can make healthy choices. They encourage their patients and clients to focus on their strengths and to encourage them to develop positive, productive networks at home, with peers, at work, and their communities.
Social work spans psychology, medicine, social justice, law, mental health, human services, education, and other disciplines that make an impact on human lives. Social workers are more than just helpers -- they are part of the fabric of successful communities. Considering a career in social work? Here’s what you need to know.
1. It’s a career in high demand
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, we need more social workers. The organization anticipates a 16 percent increase in the need for social workers between 2016-2026, which they describe as “much faster than average” compared to other occupations.
Within the field, child, family, and school social workers are projected to see the biggest increase in jobs -- about 45,000 additional jobs. That’s not all. By 2050, about 88.5 million Americans will be over the age of 65, but only about five percent of the US’ nearly half a million social workers specialize in gerontology. So social workers who specialize in elderly care will be very in-demand.
The field also faces wide disparities in gender. In 2015, 83 percent of all social workers were female. There’s a need for more men in social work, and not just in leadership positions. Research from the UK and the US shows that when men do work in the field of social work, they are more likely to do so in managerial positions, furthering gender inequality in both organization and pay. Proponents argue that more men in social work will benefit the communities they serve and provide those accessing social care options. In addition to more men in the field, there’s a need for more women in leadership roles.
Bottom line? The field needs people now more than ever. If you have the interest and desire, you won’t struggle to find a job.
2. You interact with your community
Social workers interact with all parts of society: individuals, schools, places of worship, community centers, hospitals, clinics, treatment centers, law enforcement… the list goes on.
Superior social work requires cultural competency, which you’ll develop over time. Cultural competency refers to the “specific cultural, language, social and economic nuances of particular people and families.”
Social workers understand how different groups of people experience injustice and inequality in social systems. Those groups include people of color, different religious groups, ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, those with mental health issues, and others.
An August 2018 article on the University of Southern California School of Social Work blog highlights a unique partnership between social workers and local police. Social workers at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work are involved in a new program which places interns in police departments. Their goal? To help officers address social issues that affect local communities.
Rosemary Alamo, clinical associate professor in field education at the Department of Children, Youth and Families at USC, said, “Basically, what we’re doing is providing this unique opportunity to have social work and law enforcement work side by side to discover the many commonalities between us.”
The interns from the program use evidence-based interventions including motivational interviewing and problem-solving therapy, keeping in mind possible trauma. They are working with police to raise local graduation rates and to prevent youth incarceration and gang activity.
Social workers are also deeply embedded in hospitals, clinics, and primary care settings, working with experts and local community members on a case-by-case basis.
3. It offers flexible career options
In addition to working with a variety of populations ranging in age and scope, a career in social work allows you to make changes without switching your whole career. You can also switch environments, moving from a clinical setting to private practice, or any number of other options
Like working with youth? You can work in schools, community development centers, law offices, and therapists’ offices. Want to transition to working with victims of abuse? You can do that too. Social work has innumerable opportunities to work across clinical and private settings, with every stage and aspect of humanity.
To take advantage of the flexibility in career options, give yourself lots of opportunities to experience different types of work. As a student, make sure you see a variety of settings and work with a variety of patients. As a professional, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Sit on boards of community organizations and put yourself out there.
At the leadership level, social workers can also get involved in public policy, administration, research, environmental health, public health, and healthcare administration. Clinical social workers typically move onto these types of positions at mid-points in their careers.
4. It’s challenging and never boring
As no two people are alike, no two cases are alike. Social work requires innate emotional intelligence, textbook knowledge, and a vast array of experiences to be effective.
The more practice you have, the better you get at navigating complicated government systems, legal networks, public housing, addiction treatment plans and everything in between.
It’s not a desk job either. When that call you’ve been waiting for comes in, you need to drop everything and go where you need to go to support whoever needs it. When working with people to improve their lives is your sole objective, you will never have the same day twice.
The most important thing to remember - social work is not an easy practice. Social workers frequently deal with people and cases that reflect the most difficult aspects of human society. The emotional toll is high -- you will see and hear heartbreaking stories and need to learn how to manage them professionally and employ routines for self-care and well-being. Some people choose to pursue careers in social work because of their own experiences either in the system or with challenges they’ve faced in their own lives. While first-hand experiences and passion are valuable resources to bring to the career, make sure that you understand the realities of the profession. You will not be able to right all the wrongs of society or fix every life.
5. It will teach you a lot about yourself
As a social worker, you will face unique, extreme situations. Not only will you develop a keen sense of empathy for people in situations about which you could never even dream, but you will also learn what you are good at managing and where you need help. You may find that you excel at communicating in certain situations, while you struggle in others. Social workers have to self-reliant, but still able to work in a team and know how - and when - to seek assistance. You will learn things about yourself you never even knew -- and have the opportunity to turn weaknesses into strengths.
You will witness people at their darkest hours -- and start to see the good in others that you may have taken for granted. You will discover that you are prejudiced in ways you could never imagine, and identify with people -- and issues -- you previously thought completely alien. A career in social work will give you the tools to be grateful for what you have, empathetic to situations you previously couldn’t have imagined, and a beacon of hope for those in need of help.
6. You will need a degree
To become a social worker, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Some states in the US may require a master’s of social work, or MSW, to work as a clinical social worker. Requirements vary by country and region, so it’s worth determining the type of degree you will need for the kind of work you want to do.
You may also need to continue your education. Social work is a field that allows for changes in career trajectory, but that may mean more studies or advanced qualifications. And, depending on where you work and in what capacity, you will likely need to maintain various certifications, clearances, and licenses.
Social work isn’t for the faint of heart. You will work across humanity, learning about people from all backgrounds, cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religious practices. You will see humanity at its finest -- and its worst. You will gain a clear understanding of what makes humanity tick and what stops it in its tracks. You will learn to help others navigate the complexities of everyday living through the lenses of trauma and addiction, poverty and sheer need.
Social work is more than just helping people. It’s about navigating human connection for the better.