Over the past year, a national discussion has emerged regarding who is deemed an essential worker.
The pandemic highlighted how our society would crumble without the aid and support of certain workers. While we can easily understand how service workers, nurses, and teachers fit within this category, we have also seen the necessity of another essential worker: the social worker.
Social work is an applied science and practice-based helping profession that seeks to "enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty" (NASW Code of Ethics).
Social work is a science of hope, rooted in the core values of service, competency, integrity, social justice, the importance of human relationships, and the dignity and worth of a person.
Social work in practice is driven by the knowledge that no one lives in a vacuum, and that all of our lives are impacted by both our biological and psychological influences and by our environmental contexts.
Utilizing evidence-based research into biological, psychological, and social impacts on human behavior, trauma, oppression, and problems of living — while always upholding the professional code of ethics — social workers address both personal and systemic barriers to human well-being and flourishing.
While often associated with other helping professions, such as counseling and psychology, social work utilizes a unique perspective to help conceptualize individual, group, and community behavior in the context of the multifaceted environment in which we all live.
This person-in-environment approach is a guiding principle in the field of social work, distinguishing it from other helping professions. Social work in practice is driven by the knowledge that no one lives in a vacuum, and that all of our lives are impacted by both our biological and psychological influences and by our environmental contexts.
Career and Education for Social Workers
Aspiring social workers can pursue multiple levels of education, including bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, or even Ph.D.s. The level of education impacts the type of practice that will be performed and the field settings in which a social worker will find themselves working.
Social workers can be employed in a wide variety of professional settings, including child protection agencies, juvenile and adult corrections, health and community centers, hospitals and mental health facilities, schools, government agencies, drug and alcohol treatment facilities, retirement and senior communities, faith-based institutions, and private practices.
The daily tasks of a social worker can include providing regular case management, connecting clients to needed resources, providing counseling and therapy, planning and developing community programs, improving conditions for those living in poverty, participating in the creation of legislation, teaching, and much more.
Whether doing direct practice, research, political advocacy and policy development, education, or community organization, social workers strive every day to empower the people around them and eradicate all forms of injustice.
A Personal Perspective
I was exposed to social work at a young age and knew that this was the field where I wanted to be. Rather than a career, social work feels like a calling. I wanted to spend my life doing something that gave me a sense of purpose and helped relieve people's suffering, and that is exactly what I found in this profession.
In 2009, I graduated with a bachelor of social work degree and began working immediately in the field of child abuse and neglect. Since then, I have had the opportunity to experience all the profession has to offer.
I wanted to spend my life doing something that gave me a sense of purpose and helped relieve people's suffering, and that is exactly what I found in this profession.
I have worked with children with developmental disabilities, individuals with mental illness, and the elderly. I have provided education and training for other social workers in long-term care settings and have written home studies for prospective kinship and foster/adoptive families.
I have worked in hospice, early childhood education, and with victims of domestic violence. After 10 years of direct practice, I entered the higher education classroom and have spent the last two years teaching the next generation of social workers.
The full scope of the social work profession is more expansive than I knew was possible when I began my career. And after 12 years as a social worker, I remain convinced that social workers are essential to both individual and community well-being.
The Future of Social Work
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States.
The profession continues to expand and create new job opportunities for future social workers. There are still those who are oppressed and marginalized, and there are still policies to change and systems to dismantle. And there continue to be people to care for, protect, and advocate for.
Between unemployment numbers, evictions, food insecurity, and the grief and loss created by the pandemic — not to mention stressors related to immigration policy, healthcare, and voting rights — the need for educated, passionate, and competent social workers is greater than ever before.
Social workers are necessary for those being bullied, for those who have been assaulted, for those going through a divorce, and for those who have a child with a disability.
Social workers are necessary for those struggling to readjust after military service, for those who have learned they have a terminal illness, for those who came into the world too soon, and for those who need long-term care.
Social workers are necessary for those who can't afford respite care, for those who are struggling with substance abuse, for those who feel like running away, and for those who cannot afford to retire.
Social workers are necessary for those who just had their first panic attack, for those who want to adopt, for those whose only meals are at school, and for those seeking asylum and refuge in the United States.
People can find themselves or those that they love in need at any moment of their lives, and it is in those times that the full scope of what social workers can provide becomes evident.
If I could tell those considering a career in social work one thing, it is this: Social work matters. The work that you desire to do matters. The people that you want to help matter.
Rather than dying out, this field is expanding. Our society has come to understand that if there are people who have needs to be met, social workers should have a seat at the table, because there is no other profession that has the same foundation of evidence-based research and professional values and ethics. These are the driving forces behind the practice and advocacy that social workers do day in and day out.
It is not always a glamorous work, but it is an important work. It is a work that focuses on championing social justice and service and valuing the dignity and worth of all human beings. It is a job that is unlike any other. You will work every day to enhance human well-being, help meet basic human needs, empower the vulnerable and oppressed, and eradicate poverty, discrimination, and all forms of injustice.
Social workers are essential, and the work that we do matters. And after 12 years of experience, I can honestly say that I would choose it all over again.
Angela Clavijo is an instructor of social work at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. She is a 2009 graduate from the Lamar University Social Work Program and later received her master's degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. She worked in direct practice for 10 years prior to joining the faculty at Lamar University and has experience in child and family welfare, healthcare, consultant services, and school social work.
Header Image Credit: FatCamera | Getty Images
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