Social work jobs require dedication and a passion for helping clients manage and overcome emotional, mental, and behavioral challenges.
Social workers provide vital services to help people manage everyday problems and improve their quality of life. They have several specialization options, each with distinct advantages and challenges. Preparation for a career in social work includes academic study, licensure, and practical training through experience.
What Is Social Work?
Social work professionals help people address and manage issues that impede their social functioning. These can include mental, behavioral, and interpersonal issues. Social workers take on roles in clinical, educational, and healthcare settings, where they work to help their clients develop coping mechanisms and improve quality of life.
How Much Do Social Workers Make?
Salary prospects for social work jobs exceed similar roles in other industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for social workers in 2019 was $50,470, with up to $82,540 for those in the highest earning percentiles. Those figures outmatch both earnings for other social services jobs and the median annual wage for all occupations nationwide.
Strong earning potential correlates with a positive job outlook overall. As healthcare spending and social services treatment continue to expand, BLS projects that social work jobs will also see an increase in demand, especially among those working in clinical settings. Specific employment trends will vary for different types of social workers, depending on specialization, local demand and degree level (BSW, MSW, DSW).
Social Work Career Paths
A broad field, social work includes several areas of specialization, the most common of which are listed below. Most academic programs offer concentrations in at least one of these areas, though it's best to research offerings on your own before applying to a university.
Child and Family
These social workers help prevent child abuse and domestic violence, improve family dynamics, strengthen parenting skills, and in some cases identify alternative homes for children. Some child and family counselors work in schools or other education contexts, but most work in social services and other government agencies.
Clinical social workers assist in healthcare delivery, helping groups and individuals adjust to new lifestyles and manage their mental health while they undergo medication or treatment plans. This subfield can also include social work jobs in mental health and substance abuse. Potential work settings include hospitals and physician's offices, outpatient clinics, and substance abuse treatment centers.
These professionals focus on the needs of the elderly population. This means helping individuals and their families cope with challenges associated with aging: financial issues, new medications, mobility and social functioning, dementia, and mental health. Social workers in this area usually work in senior centers, nursing facilities, and retirement homes.
Medical and Public Health
Similar to clinical social work, this area focuses on medical concerns and public health awareness. These social work jobs often entail working with people with disabilities or individuals who have chronic conditions or life-threatening diseases. Responsibilities include psychological support, mental health counseling, and in-home health services. They may also work on a more macro scale, helping raise public awareness for community mental health problems.
School and Education
Social workers on this path provide social services within schools and other educational environments. They often focus on exceptional learners or students who need individual education plans. They work alongside teachers and other school administrators to improve learning outcomes and they may offer mental health or career counseling for students. They may also provide support to parents and families.
We ranked the best social work jobs for 2020 using salary and projected job growth rate data from the BLS.
Is Social Work Right for You?
Social work jobs are rewarding, but they do present unique challenges. The sections below consider the pros and cons of a career in social work. Aspiring professionals should assess their own strengths and weaknesses to determine if this career path is right for them.
Social work jobs can offer fulfilling careers making a positive impact on people's lives. Although gradual, their impact on clients is visible and measurable. To facilitate positive results, most social workers maintain an active base of clients, who they see on a regular basis.
Socially adept people with strong interpersonal skills fit most social work jobs. Work responsibility involves constant and active interaction with other people. Necessary characteristics like empathy, organization, and social perception help social workers identify pressing issues and develop workable solutions that can change lives.
Social work is not for everyone and it can pose significant professional challenges. Most social work jobs are emotionally taxing due to constant contact with individuals in high-stress situations. This highly emotional career can make it difficult to separate client needs from your own; effective social workers excel at this skill, but it must be developed over time.
Work hours and work environments can also be demanding and unpredictable. Many social work jobs require on-call availability during nights and weekends, which can make balancing personal life and professional responsibility difficult. Some jobs may involve individual site visits to see clients.
Regardless of specialization, social workers see clients during the most stressful moments of their lives. Those moments require poise, delicacy, and consistent professionalism.
What Are the Highest Paying Social Work Jobs?
According to data from the BLS, the highest paying roles in this field are healthcare social workers and child, family, and school social workers. Social workers specializing in mental health or substance abuse also earn comparatively high wages.
Are Social Workers in Demand?
The job outlook for social workers is strong and projected to increase by 13% between 2019-2029, according to BLS projections. Those growth numbers outpace the national average by nearly 10% and can be at least partially attributed to aging populations and general population growth.
What Are the Different Types of Social Work Jobs?
Many people get started in business administration or management by earning a bachelor's degree in business from an accredited university. After graduation — or even before — you can obtain an entry-level job or secure an internship, which imparts valuable experience and networking opportunities and helps you get a foot in the door.
Is Social Work Stressful?
Work in this area can be demanding, causing high rates of burnout. Many professionals work odd hours and must be on-call to address sensitive client needs. Fortunately, most educational and professional development programs and organizations offer tools to help social workers meet these rigors.