Careers in Social Work

"For sheer variety, few occupations can match social work, which offers the broadest range of opportunities and settings. Social workers are found in public agencies, private businesses, hospitals, clinics, schools, nursing homes, private practices, police departments, courts, and countless other interesting workplaces.

Social workers serve individuals, families, and communities. They are managers, supervisors, and administrators. They serve at all levels of government. They are educators. They are therapists and researchers. More and more, they are also elected political leaders and legislators."
(National Association of Social Workers)

The need for social workers is growing.  Employment in social work is expected to grow by over 16% in the next decade, faster than average for all occupations.  Health reform and demographic trends such as the aging population, increasing numbers of military & veterans, and growth of immigrant and refugee populations, are driving above-average growth of social work employment.  The need for child, family and school social workers is expected to remain strong. (Bureau of Labor Statistics

As a licensed profession, social work offers tremendous flexibility to move between different areas of practice throughout one's career.  Some types of social work require advanced education and licensure.  The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is a good resource for exploring social work career options. Below are some of the more popular areas of social work practice:

  • Combining a degree in Social work with a minor in Chemical Dependency Counseling: Addiction and Recovery prepares you to work with individuals, families, and communities that are facing the challenges of substance abuse and addiction. Social workers may work with the individual struggling with a substance abuse or addiction, or they may work with the individual’s family and community. Generalist social workers provide a holistic perspective on the interdisciplinary team of professionals supporting people and their families in various stages of addiction and recovery.  This holistic perspective manifests in work with individuals, group work, interdisciplinary teamwork, organizational policy and procedures, community education, advocacy, and social policy and programming.
  • Social work managers and administrators work to lead social service organizations so that clients meet their needs. Social work managers and administrators play a critical role in the provision of social services as they help the organization stay true to social justice, social work values and ethics, and a client centered approach. Beyond bringing strong interpersonal skills such as motivation and consensus building, a strong social work administrator also brings technical and business skills to the role. The role of the social worker in these positions includes but is not limited to program management, fundraising, budgeting, human resources, marketing, and public relations. Students who are interested in this area of practice are served by also completing the minor in Social Service Management.
  • Learn more about social work administration and management 
  • Advocates champion the rights of individuals and communities with the goal of social justice and equity.  Community organizers work with neighborhoods, groups, and communities to help them to help themselves. Social work advocacy, both legislative (ie: “lobbying”) and grassroots advocacy, are generally focused around a specific problem or issue, such as education, health care, or welfare reform. Skills essential for the advocacy process include data collection and research, effective public relations and media skills, knowledge of the legislative process, and fundraising.
  • Learn more about macro practice social work 
  • “By 2020, one in six Americans are projected to be age 65 and older, with the most dramatic growth among those over age 85, elders of color, and women (CSWE Gero-Ed Center, 2011).” These demographic changes will in turn lead to a need for social workers with interest, education, and experience working with older adults and their families. Gero-social work is a practice area that is growing rapidly and will offer employment opportunities to current students who can sustain and grow services provided to older adults and their families. Gero-social work includes opportunities at all levels of generalist practice – micro (individual and family), mezzo (organizations), and macro (communities and society). “Social work with older people and their caregivers work in the areas of retirement planning, community development and advocacy, adult leisure and recreational programming, employment training and counseling, volunteer and long-term care services, mutual aid and self-help programming, travel and wellness programs, and adult and lifelong learning projects. Social work with older adults focuses on the physical, psychological, emotional, social, and economic aspects of daily living.”  (Choices: Careers in Social Work, NASW)
  • The School of Social Work offers an Area of Emphasis in Gero-social work initiative for BSW students.  
  • Learn more about Gero social work
  • Child welfare & family social workers work in various different settings that support children, youth, and families. They often work at adoption agencies, foster care agencies, public child welfare agencies, non-profit and for profit family social services, and various other organizations that serve children and families. Social workers work with families that are struggling with parenting, housing, violence, and various other issues. They work with children to assist them in developing into resilient adults and work with families to create the systems that support positive development. Social workers are also involved in youth work, working in agencies that work with teen parents[KH1] , street youth & runaways, and in juvenile probation.
  • Learn more about child welfare, youth, and family social work 
  • Social workers in corrections and justice work in courts, rape crisis centers, domestic violence organizations, police departments, correctional facilities, and governmental departments of corrections & human services. When working in rape crisis centers or domestic violence organizations, social workers often work with the victim of a crime; providing support and advocating for the client in the court system. In other settings, the social worker often works with the perpetrator, providing case management and counseling to assist the client in rehabilitation and their ability to reenter the community. Social workers who work in corrections and justice often actively participate in restitution and mediate programs that provide the opportunity for the victim and the perpetrator to come together to heal and address the long term ramifications of the crime.
  • Learn more about social work in the criminal justice
  • The goal of social workers who work with people with disabilities is to assist people with disabilities to achieve full participation in society. This goal can be met through simply helping individuals, families and communities identify what is standing in the way of full participation or it can be through connecting individuals, families and communities with appropriate services. The roles for social workers working in disabilities include education, case management, referral, policy advocacy, counseling, and interdisciplinary work.
  • Learn more about social work with people with disabilities 
  • Within the next four to five decades, immigrants and refugees will account for 65% of the country's population growth, and first- and second-generation immigrants and refugees will make up over 25% of the population (Doyle, 1999; Fix & Passel, 1994). Thus, all social workers are likely to encounter refugee and immigrant clients in their practice, and it is essential that they be prepared to work effectively with this population (from Encyclopedia of Social Work). Refugees and immigrants have unique needs and challenges which can be effectively addressed by social workers who are knowledgeable, sensitive, and responsive to their needs. Generalist social workers who work with immigrants and refugees participate in macro and mezzo practice through community organizing, advocacy and planning, and organizational development. They also provide micro practice through case management, crisis intervention, supportive counseling, resource and referral and family preservation. Senior BSW majors may take the elective SOWK 441 / GRSW 541: Family Resiliency and Diversity: Immigrants and Refugees.
  • The world needs social workers! Social workers in an international setting provide various types of services. Some international social workers provide direct service in villages, refugee camps, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. They also work with larger systems by providing support and doing the work of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), national governments, and intergovernmental organizations to respond to social issues. In these role, social workers may develop social welfare policies, provide technical assistance, complete research, manage programs, create delivery systems, train others, and help respond to emergencies. Social workers also serve internationally in child welfare agencies, around domestic violence and human trafficking, and for the U.S government in diplomatic posts.
  • Learn more about international social work
  • “Mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability for people age five and older, with major depression the leading cause of disability in the United States” (Choices: Careers in Social Work, NASW). Mental illness can diminish individuals and families ability to live life to its fullest but it does not need to have this negative effect. Social workers engage with individuals and families to help them achieve their goals of successful social functioning. Generalist social workers provide services to people managing mental illness primarily through case management, support groups, life skill development, and advocacy. Through case management, generalist social workers play a critical role in assisting people in accessing and navigating services, support, and resources to effectively manage mental health symptoms and challenges as they manifest in daily living. Generalist social workers also provide support and resources to family members impacted by a loved one’s mental illness. Clinical social workers (requiring a MSW) are the primary provider of mental health treatment/therapy to those struggling with mental illness.
  • Explore the MSW "What is Clinical Social Work?" page
  • Today's U.S. military population is comprised of 3.6 million service members, over 21 million veterans, and their families (See MSW Area of Emphasis in Military Practice).  Support needs for service members, veterans, their families, and their communities have become increasingly complex.  There is a demand for generalist social workers who are educated, trained and skilled in working with these service members, veterans and their families. Social workers provide case management services, advocacy for services accessibility, and policy creation & planning around service provision.  Senior BSW majors may take the elective SOWK 490 / GRSW 590:  Practice with Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families
  • Policy and planning involve steps and procedures that, when formulated and implemented, solve a social problem.  Social workers analyze policies, programs, and regulations to see what is most effective.  They identify social problems, study needs and related issues, conduct research, propose legislation, and suggest alternative approaches or new programs.  Social work tasks may involve raising funds, writing grants, or conducting demonstration projects. Often, social workers are the directors of organizations that do this work.
  • “In particular, School Social Workers are trained in mental health concerns, behavioral concerns, positive behavioral support, academic and classroom support, consultation with teachers, parents and administrators as well as with individual and group counseling techniques. School social workers are instrumental in furthering the mission of the schools which is to provide a setting for teaching, learning, and for the attainment of competence and confidence. School social workers are hired by school districts to enhance the district's ability to meet its academic mission, especially where home, school and community collaboration is the key to achieving student success.” (School Social Work Association of America)    
  • Learn more about school social work:School Social Workers Association of America and NASW School Social Work.