GUIDE
May 18, 2021
How to Become a Social Worker

By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, BA, RN, CBC

According to U.S. News & World Report, being a social worker ranks #12 in best social services jobs and #85 in 100 best jobs. And for good reason: it's a job where you can really make an impact.

Social workers help individuals get through some of the biggest challenges they'll face in their entire lives. From job loss to drug and alcohol recovery, as a social worker, you're there for the big stuff and are an integral part of the recovery process.

In this guide, we’ll explain what a social worker does, how to become one, how much they make, and everything else you need to know about this amazing profession.

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Part One What is a Social Worker?

Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. 

Social Worker Specialties

Social workers can specialize or work in a variety of areas. According to the National Association of Social Workers, these areas may include, 

  1. Administration and Management
  2. Advocacy and Community Organization
  3. Aging
  4. Child Welfare
  5. Developmental Disabilities
  6. Health Care
  7. International Social Work
  8. Justice and Corrections
  9. Mental Health and Clinical Social Work
  10. Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work
  11. Occupational and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Social Work
  12. Policy and Planning
  13. Politics
  14. Public Welfare
  15. Research
  16. School Social Work

Part Two What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers have many unique job responsibilities; however, their specific duties depend on the type of social work. For example, a social worker that works in academia or research will have very different job duties than a drug and alcohol social worker. 

Some of the tasks social workers do, depending on their field of work, may include:

  1. Administering social service programs
  2. Advocating for and developing plans to improve clients’ well-being
  3. Advocating for community resources for individuals
  4. Assessing needs, situations, strengths, and support networks for individuals
  5. Collaborating with other healthcare professionals
  6. Conducting research
  7. Consulting with doctors, therapists, and other health professionals
  8. Contacting and making referrals to other agencies and services
  9. Developing and putting treatment plans in place
  10. Developing and evaluating programs and services
  11. Diagnosing psychological, behavioral, and emotional disorders
  12. Following up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  13. Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives
  14. Helping people of all life stages cope with and solve everyday problems
  15. Hold drug and alcohol recovery meetings
  16. Identifying people and communities
  17. Instructing clients’ families during treatment
  18. Maintaining case files and records
  19. Participating in training, supervision, and meetings
  20. Providing psychotherapy services
  21. Providing crisis intervention
  22. Researching and referring clients to community resources
  23. Observing for signs of child abuse

Part Three Social Worker Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for social workers in 2019 was $50,470 per year or $24.26 per hour. Salaries can range anywhere from $31,790 to $82,540, depending on your location and specialty.

The BLS breaks social workers into four categories:

  1. Healthcare social workers - $56,750
  2. Child, family, and school social workers - $47,390
  3. Mental health and substance abuse social workers - $46,650
  4. All other types of social workers - $61,230

Highest Paying States for Social Workers

The BLS reports that in May 2019, the highest paying states for healthcare social workers were:

  1. California - $83,000
  2. District of Columbia - $76,100
  3. Oregon - $75,730
  4. Hawaii - $73,410
  5. Connecticut - $71,850

Highest Paying Cities for Social Workers

The BLS also reported that the top five metropolitan cities with the highest-paid healthcare social workers are:

  1. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California - $100,410
  2. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California - $98,980
  3. Salinas, California - $95,690
  4. Fresno, California - $90,620
  5. Vallejo-Fairfield, California - $89,300

Social Worker Salaries by Years of Experience

According to payscale.com, the average salary for a social worker as of March 2021 is $21.55 per hour or $48,500 per year.

Specifically, social workers can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience.

  1. Less than 1 year of experience earn an average annual salary of $41,729
  2. 1-4 years of experience earn an average annual salary of $45,260
  3. 5-9 years of experience earns an average annual salary of $50,352
  4. 10-19 years of experience earns an average annual salary of $55,002
  5. 20 years and higher years of experience earns an average annual salary of $57,673

Part Four How to Become a Social Worker

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW)

It is possible to earn a bachelor's degree in another field and still become a social worker. However, if you know that you want to become a social worker, it is helpful to earn a bachelor's degree specific to the profession.  Being educated in social work will help you when interviewing for a job and applying to a master’s program.

Coursework includes classes in the following areas: 

  • Intro to Social Work
  • Social Work Practice
  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment
  • Cultural Diversity and Justice
  • Social Welfare Policy
  • Behavioral Health
  • Social Work Case Management
  • Research Methods

Step 2: Choose a social work specialty

You will need to choose between a clinical and non-clinical position before completing an internship.

Having a specialization will allow you to gain more insight and experience in your specific field and may even help you land your first job.

Some employers prefer specific education and training when considering potential applicants.

Step 3: Complete an internship

You will gain invaluable first-hand experience with a social worker in the field. It also will allow you to determine if the specialty you chose was the right fit. 

Some of the opportunities you will have during your internship include:

  • Counseling under the observation of a preceptor
  • Collecting medical histories
  • Learning efficiency on managing patient records
  • Interacting with other staff members and ancillary disciplines
  • Communication skills with clients and families

Step 4: Apply for state licensure

To legally practice, you need a license in the state where you live. You will find licensure requirements, fees, and renewal information on your individual state’s website. 

If you desire to work in a clinical position, you will need to earn licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). However, some states also offer non-clinical forms of licensure for those who do not have a bachelor’s degree or choose not to work in a clinical area.

State requirements vary; however, most require the following information for licensure:

  • Education
  • Criminal background check
  • Pass necessary licensure exams
  • Apply for licensure

Step 5: Gain experience as a social worker

Many social work students volunteer to gain additional experience in school and help them land their first job. But if you are ready to get straight to work, there are still helpful ways to gain professional experience. 

  • Network with professors, your internship preceptor, and other students. 
  • Go to social work hiring fairs
  • Attend professional conferences
  • Use LinkedIn or other professional networking sites to look for opportunities

Step 6: Earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW)

Many bachelors-trained social workers earn a master of social work degree to advance their skills, make more money, take on higher-level management jobs, and become more specialized.  

An MSW program can be completed in as fast as one to two years, depending on your area of specialization, your university, and whether you attend full-time or part-time. Some social workers find that they can achieve their MSN while working full-time, especially now that many schools offer online programs.

Part Five Where Do Social Workers Work?

Social workers can work in a variety of locations depending on their specialization. Common work locations include, 

  1. Academia
  2. Adoption agencies
  3. Aging and disability services
  4. Ambulatory healthcare services
  5. Child welfare and family services
  6. Community development corporations
  7. Corporations
  8. Correctional facilities
  9. Court systems
  10. Drug and alcohol centers (in and outpatient)
  11. Government agencies
  12. Hospitals and medical centers
  13. Mental health clinics
  14. Military
  15. Non-profit agencies
  16. Orphanages
  17. Police departments
  18. Prison systems
  19. Private practices
  20. Rape crisis centers
  21. Refugee camps
  22. Rehabilitation centers
  23. Research facilities
  24. Schools
  25. Home health
  26. Senior centers
  27. Settlement houses
  28. Unemployment offices

Work hours will vary for social workers depending on their field of expertise. A school-based social worker may only work Monday through Friday during school hours, while a drug and alcohol counselor might run group meetings on evenings and weekends. 

Part Six What is the Career Outlook for a Social Worker?

According to the BLS, in 2019, there were 713,200 social workers in the United States. By 2029, there will be a need for additional 90,700 social workers and an expected growth of 13% (which is much higher than average professions).

Ultimately, social worker employment will vary depending on specialization. Here are some examples of potential career growth percentages in the profession:

  • Child, family, and school social workers - 12 percent growth
  • Healthcare social workers - 14 percent growth
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers - 17 percent growth

All social worker specialties will see exceptional growth over the next decade for a variety of reasons. The aging population in the US will require more healthcare social workers to assist in hospitals. Also, more mental health and substance abuse positions will open as more individuals seek treatment for these issues.

Part Seven What are the Continuing Education Requirements for a Social Worker?

Social work continuing education requirements vary by state but most require a minimum of 30 credit hours.

Some states will require specific credit hours, which may include courses related to: 

  • Child abuse recognition and reporting training 
  • Cultural competence in the practice of social work
  • The ethical practice of social work
  • Sexual harassment prevention training
  • Suicide prevention training

Part Eight Resources for Social Worker

  1. American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children
  2. Clinical Social Work Association
  3. International Federation of Social Workers
  4. National Association of Black Social Workers
  5. National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
  6. Society for Social Work and Research
  7. Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care

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Part Nine Social Worker FAQs

  • What exactly does a social worker do?

    • Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
  • What are the requirements to become a social worker?

    • You'll need to complete a bachelor’s degree before earning a position as a social worker. Your coursework will help you determine if you are interested in a clinical or non-clinical track and help you choose a specialty.
  • Do social workers get paid well?

    • According to payscale.com, the average salary for a social worker as of March 2021 is $21.55 per hour or $48,500 per year. However, your city, specialization, years of work experience, and level of education also influence your salary.
  • What skills do social workers need?

    • The most important skill needed as a social worker is empathy. Other essential skills for social workers include good communication skills, critical thinking skills, patience, cultural competence, self-awareness, strong organization skills, and the ability to work well with others.
  • Can I become a social worker without a degree?

    • It is possible to become a social worker without a degree; however, the opportunities are extremely limited and rare. Some entry-level positions require only a high school diploma. These jobs may include working in substance abuse, behavioral health disorders, mental health counseling, community health, or as a social and human service assistant.
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