The 10 Best Social Work Jobs

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Why do some people covet social work jobs? They desire to improve people's lives. Social workers bring their skills, knowledge, compassion patience, and hunger for change as they advocate for social, cultural and economic impact and help people manage challenges with health, aging, children, families and other life issues.

Most social workers focus their skills in one of more than 40 practice areas, e.g. veteran affairs, mental health, homelessness or substance abuse.

For people seeking a social worker career, the future appears quite bright. In 2011, CNN ranked a social work career No. 4 out of 20, a 2012 analysis by U. S. News and World Report ranked social work #18 out of the top 25 jobs and the Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS) forecasts a close-to-20 percent employment growth for social workers from 2010-2020.

The Top Ten Social Work Jobs

1. Child Welfare Social Workers

A child welfare social work career typically includes limited resources, a heavy caseload and very demanding work, however it's a highly satisfying occupation.

Due to concerns about child abuse or neglect, child welfare social workers investigate to determine if a child can remain in the home or whether they need to place the child elsewhere temporarily or permanently.

A child welfare social worker career includes providing support services to families and connecting them with community services such as child care, substance abuse treatment, temporary income maintenance, parenting classes, job training, or family/marital counseling. A child welfare social worker career may involve serving as an expert witness or presenting testimony on a child's behalf.

Child welfare social worker careers include tending to many different facets of a child's welfare and proposing plans which have a major impact on a child and his/her family. A child welfare social worker may also get involved in child adoptions.

Child welfare social worker employment growth forecast: Vigorous growth through 2018.

Child welfare social worker average annual salary range: $45,950 – $47,000 (May 2012) **

2. Direct-Service Social Worker

Direct-service social workers deliver direct services to individuals and families. The agency settings vary – a child welfare agency, a shelter for homeless families or abused women, a local community development agency and a program for gang youth.

Direct-service social workers address many different cultural, social, health, and environmental issues. A direct-service social worker may obtain an agency director or program coordinator position.

Direct-service social workers try to restore individuals, families, and communities to solid social functioning. They help people get stable, strengthen themselves and become more self-sufficient.

Direct-service social worker employment forecast: Strong employment.

Direct-service social worker average annual salary range: $37,000 – $68,300 (2009) *

3. Gerontology Social Worker

The U.S. Administration on Aging reports people age 65-plus are expected to represent 19 percent of the population by 2030. The country's aging population, especially seniors 80-plus, need more support and resources to sustain their independence, interests and activities.

Gerontology social workers help seniors gain a better understanding of the mental and physical complications of getting older and the cultural, social and institutional attitudes accompanying aging. Gerontology social workers use social interventions, clinical interventions and advocacy to help improve the lives of seniors and their families.

Gerontology social workers serve as liaisons between a senior client and family members, doctors, caregivers, medical centers, nursing homes, etc. Gerontology social worker jobs include helping with vital concerns such as elder scams and abuse, in-home assistance, transitions to long-term care, end-of-life planning, depression and grief.

Gerontology social worker employment growth forecast: Increased growth.

Gerontology social worker average annual salary range: $42,000 – $60,000 (2009) *

4. Medical/Public Health Social Worker

Medical/public health social workers can work in any facility providing medical care to ill patients such as hospitals, wellness centers, emergency rooms, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, homecare agencies, assisted-living facilities and hospices.

Medical/public health social workers help ensure clients are cared for properly, they assist with paperwork and decision-making, and they coordinate dialogue with clients, caregivers, families and medical personnel. Medical/public health social workers advocate for a patient's rights and provide support and reassurance during difficult times.

Due to the critical and urgent nature of this arena, medical social workers generally receive higher pay compared to social workers in other sectors.

Medical social workers are in high demand.

Medical social worker employment growth forecasts: Through 2018 medical/public health social workers have the highest forecasted employment growth of all social workers.

Medical social worker mean annual salary range: $48,680 – $56,960 (May 2012) **

5. Mental Health Social Worker

Mental health social workers or clinical social workers help individuals within a wide array of mental, behavioral and emotional problems and disorders. They assess clients' mental health, diagnose mental disorders, develop treatment plans and assist in the management of those mental disorders.

Mental health social workers work in mental hospitals, community mental health centers, hospitals, private practices, etc.
This area requires a master's degree as well as licensure, as a clinical social worker (LCSW), especially when clinical practice and therapy are included.

Mental health social worker employment growth forecast: Strong.

Mental health social worker average annual salary range: $41,270 – $49,160 (May 2012) **

6. Palliative & Hospice Care Social Workers

Palliative social workers try to relieve or prevent pain and other symptoms associated with serious illness, either chronic or terminal. Hospice, a form of palliative care, focuses on end-of-life care, usually six months or less. Social workers in this specialty area work directly with clients in inpatient settings, homes, and at offices.

The work involves driving to and from clients and some emergency coverage may be required, particularly in hospice.
This important work can feel ominous to some people but dedicated social workers take satisfaction from helping clients and their loved ones move through illness and death in a compassionate, tender way.

Hospice care social worker employment growth forecast: Strong, due to a disproportionately aging population.

Hospice care social worker average Annual Salary Range: $39,000 – $56,000 Source: (2009) *

7. Research Social Worker

A social work researcher advocates for and supports social change and helps advance progressive social policies.

Many social workers launch their careers in direct services, then move on to management roles and program development; at some point, some pursue a research career, including attaining a doctoral degree.

A research social worker career includes exploring and compiling best field and clinical practices, assessing governmental, organizational and administrative policies, and publishing articles and books which present the latest data, programs and professional guidance.

A research social worker career includes writing grants, conducting demonstration projects, analyzing census data, developing position papers, testifying at hearings, talking with the media and policymakers and lobbying elected and appointed officials.

Research social worker average annual salary range: $43,150 – $64,750 (May 2012) **

8. School Social Worker

School social work, one of the most popular areas in social work, includes social work jobs varying in responsibility. School social workers typically work for school districts or an agency contracted to provide services by the school district.
To help meet a child's educational requirements, school social workers work with teachers and schools, children and their families, and community resources.

A school social worker role may include working with special needs children, foster children, nomadic families, truants and delinquents to facilitate their transition and/or re-entry into mainstream learning environments.
A school social worker career may involve confronting a variety of issues, especially behavioral interventions, prevention, and educational programs, e.g. sexuality, drugs, hygiene, communication, abuse, etc.

School social worker employment forecast: Strong.

School social worker average annual salary range: $55,550 – $59,620 (May 2012) **

9. Substance Abuse Social Workers

Substance abuse social workers work in various facilities which treat people with addictions and patterns of substance misuse such as rehabilitation centers, juvenile and foster care facilities, prisons, health care centers and community service agencies.

Substance abuse social workers are involved with counseling and sequential crisis interventions. They're also involved with people dealing with physical abuse, unemployment, poverty, and mental or physical illness.

Substance abuse social workers dealing with relapses and addictive behaviors need patience, compassion and commitment.
Substance abuse social work is especially challenging yet exceptionally gratifying.

Helping someone attain long-term recovery can make all the difference in the person's quality of life.
Substance abuse social worker employment forecast: Steady growth.

Substance abuse social worker average annual salary range*: $36,330 – $49,160 (May 2012) **

10. Veterans & Military Social Workers

The Bureau of Veteran Affairs (VA) is the largest employer of Master-level social workers in the U.S. VA social workers offer a variety of services to veterans and their families, including advocacy, benefit assistance, medical referrals, bureaucratic navigation, and mental health therapy for conditions such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and drug and alcohol addiction.

Many veterans returning from war bring issues which demand the social worker's skill in solving complex, multi-factor problems. Military social workers counsel individuals (and their families) deploying or transitioning from deployment to everyday life; they also offer interventions for those who have undergone traumatic experiences as part of their military life.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden created “Joining Forces,” a project to address the unique needs of military families. In response, the Association of Social Workers offers a free five-course training module on “Social Work with Service Members.”

Military social workers average annual salary range: Salaries based on the military system of rank and time in service. Social workers rank as GS-5, GS-7 or GS-9, depending on education. (May 2012) **

Social Work Jobs Education Requirements

For each of the social work job areas, depending on the specific job description, a Master of Social Work degree (MSW), which includes a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction, may be a minimum or preferred requirement. In some states, based on the job requirements, social workers may need a license or a license might be preferred.

All clinical social workers must have a MSW degree. Social workers with a MSW degree, involved in clinical work, require supervision. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) generally performs clinical work without supervision. Most states require 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for consideration as a LCSW.

Other Strong or Emerging Areas of Social Work Include:

Adolescent Health:

With continuing media focus on adolescents & sexuality, negative images for teens, anti-bullying, etc., more social workers pay professional attention to adolescents and the unique issues they face during this critical period of development. Adolescent health social workers work with schools, community agencies, medical centers, special teen programs, etc.

Corporate Social Work:

Some corporations and for-profit businesses contract social workers to manage their Employee-Assistance Programs (EAP). These social workers address mental health, family and other issues which impede personal success and employment performance of an employee or the employee's family members.

Developmental Disabilities:

Social workers help children and adults with developmental disabilities, such as autism, mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and other conditions. Social workers help them become independent, socially adjusted and lead a joyful, productive life. Social workers serve as advocates for their disabled clients, affirm their legal rights, and identify special services they may need.

Environmental Crises:

When a municipality faces serious environmental disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes or when a town confronts a horrendous tragedy such as the shooting of multiple people, a major crisis intervention occurs. Teams of doctors, psychologists and social workers address the immediate and long-term issues facing individuals and groups impacted by the calamity.


Beyond clinical treatment and rehabilitation with alcohol and drug abusers, social workers work in in courts, police departments, correctional facilities and victim service centers, assisting clients in making an independent transition following their release from various programs.

Some social workers serve as probation and parole officers, offering help to find needed resources to rebuild a client's self-sufficiency. They may also serve as an expert witness or participate in a legal or law enforcement team.


Social workers in this arena work with clients living with HIV/AIDS and the physical and mental health disorders which accompany HIV/AIDS. They also work with individuals, families, and communities affected by the presence of HIV/AIDS in their circles.

Enhanced treatments for HIV/AIDS clients, has increased focus on education, prevention, and ethical/cultural barriers within impacted groups.

Legislative & Political:

Many social workers move through a natural evolution from activist and provider of direct services to a leadership role in their careers or in political life. More and more social workers seek elective or appointed office; from local school boards to county governments and from state legislatures to the U.S. Congress. They also get involved in the political campaigns of other people, advocacy groups, political associations and governmental agencies.

All service arenas of social work need professionals who are not only well educated and well trained but who also bring sensitivity, compassion, respect, dedication and a personal “grounding” which allows them to work positively and fairly with children, families, addicts, the dying and others who may have lost hope and direction. Social workers play important roles in the fabric of people's lives and truly can “make a difference.”

Actual salaries vary depending on degree(s) and certification/licensing, age/experience, geographic region and work sector.

* Salary, number of jobs and employment growth provided by

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