What is Social Work?

Social work is a practice-based profession that promotes social change, development, cohesion and the empowerment of people and communities. Social work practice involves the understanding of human development, behavior and the social, economic and cultural institutions and interactions. Social work professionals working with families and institutions have helped to provide and advance the following social impacts:

  • Civil Rights
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Disability Pay
  • Worker’s Compensation
  • Reduced Mental Health Stigma
  • Medicaid and Medicare
  • Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention

In the U.S., social work has been around over 100 years with notable pioneers such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkeins, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Harry Hopkins, Dorothy Height and Jeanette Rankin.

What is a Social Worker?

Social workers are professionals who aim to enhance overall well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of communities and people. Social workers work with many different populations and types of people, particularly focusing on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.

Depending on their specialty, job title and place of employment, a social worker may be required to participate in legislative processes that often result in the formation of social policies. They lean on social work values and principles, as well as academic research to carry out their work. 

Social workers are educated and trained to address social injustices and barriers to their client’s overall wellbeing. Some of these include poverty, unemployment, discrimination and lack of housing. They also support clients and communities who are living with disabilities, substance abuse problems, or experience domestic conflicts. 

Social workers often fine-tune their practice with a focus on a level of interventions and types of communities they wish to serve. A clinical social worker, for example, focuses on diagnoses, treatments and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral issues. On the other hand, a social worker may focus on research and development for small or large scale programs to help the community, like medicaid. 

Is a Career in Social Work Right for Me?

Is a career in social work worth it? For you, it could be. Before you settle on any profession, whether it is in social work or a related discipline, consider your personal interests, unique abilities and professional goals. Your career as a social worker should align with these three things. Consider asking yourself these questions to determine if a social work career is worth it for you:

  • Does diversity drive you or is your cultural competence what draws others to you? 
  • Do you currently spend your spare time mentoring disadvantaged youth or support children and adolescents who have experienced trauma or abuse at the hands of family members?
  • Are you emotionally resilient and seek out challenges in the workplace, always proposing new solutions?
  • Are you praised you for your patience, professionalism and ability to read people?  

The job of a social worker is often considered both rewarding and emotionally taxing. Having strong interpersonal skills, exercising empathy, and being an effective communicator, listener and critical thinker, may lead to big wins on the job.  

If you do decide to enter the field of social work, you’ll be joining a fast-growing workforce. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 13 percent from 2019 to 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By contrast, all occupations are expected to grow 4 percent in the same decade. 

  • You can become a social worker with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) , but independent and more research orientated roles may require advanced education. 
  • A Master of Social Work (MSW) for example, may lead to state licensure to practice independently. There are traditional, hybrid and online MSW programs available. 
  • If you already have a BSW, you may apply to advanced standing MSW programs. This type of program can typically be completed in a shorter amount of time, as it assumes that you have already learned social work fundamentals during your BSW. 
  • If clinical social work is the path you would like to take, you must know what it takes to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). You may pursue a clinical MSW program to further support your LCSW goal. Some states require this pathway and others do not. Be sure to check with your state’s social work licensing requirements.
  • If you’re looking to become a leader in your workplace or the field, then a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW)  may be a viable option. The DSW holder looks to transition into positions that assess large-scale problems and address social work issues on a grand scale. 

What Does a Social Worker Do?

The roles of a social worker include many diverse specializations. Here are some common responsibilities of social workers organized by different specialty areas:

Child, family, and school social workers help children, school staff, and family members resolve problems. In some instances, this may mean placing children in foster care. Child, family, and school social workers may also connect struggling parents with resources to help better care for and raise their children. They work alongside students and teachers to address bullying, learning disabilities, and other impairments/barriers. 

Medical and public health social workers help the seriously ill and those with chronic health problems to find adequate care, access public resources like Medicare and Medicaid or locate services such as in-home nursing care. They often play a critical role in supporting clients as they navigate the numerous healthcare and public service systems that coordinate healthcare. 

Mental health and substance abuse social workers support people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Therapy is one common intervention used by social workers to help clients address these problems. Assisting people to find financially accessible rehabilitative programs or long-term mental healthcare is another service that is offered. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may also participate in outreach and preventative programs that seek to address problems before they become exacerbated.

It isn’t a question of what does a social worker does daily, but rather what doesn’t a social worker do? Day in and out, social workers can be found in a range of settings helping and supporting those around them. 

Where Does a Social Worker Work?

Social workers can be found within a wide variety of employment settings. Specializations often determine where and how they work. Some spend time in an office, although visiting clients off-site is also common. Those working within the child, school, and family positions may experience schedule changes and will generally need to travel more than their healthcare counterparts who tend to be more fixed in their roles. 

The field of social work allows for a variety of focus areas dedicated to helping others. You can find dedicated social workers within hospitals, mental health clinics, prisons, military barracks, senior centers, corporations, and public social agencies. Out of the public eye, licensed social workers can also set up private practices that specialize in relationship problems, mental illness, personality disorders, or mental illnesses.

Learn more on how to become a social worker.

Possible Careers in Social Work 

There are numerous possibilities for social work careers at the macro, micro, and mezzo levels. Some opportunities include:

  • Military Social Worker. A military social worker educates and works with members of the armed forces and their families to help them with the unique challenges they face in their line of work. Through counseling and support, military social workers can navigate the complexity of working with both active-duty and civilian clients who are part of the military.
  • Community Social Worker. Instead of working with a single person, a community social worker assesses a group as a whole and implements measures and changes for the betterment of everyone. Community social workers plan for and administer new programs, or work on allocating resources to the community.
  • Mental Health Social Worker. Mental illness can present many challenges for people and families across the country. Those living with mental health disorders often need additional support and attention that social workers can provide. A mental health social worker spends their time assessing and treating people with mental health issues providing feedback and assistance to address these behavioral and emotional issues. 
  • School Social Worker. Most primary and secondary schools have a social worker who is the voice and advocate for their students. A school social worker works directly with the school, teachers, parents, and staff to make sure students can thrive inside and outside of the schoolroom setting. These social workers develop relationships with families, recommend community resources and extend support for mental health services and crisis management.

Social Worker Skills

Each social worker employs a diverse set of skills to do their work. But as we discussed earlier, there are certain skills that can be particularly useful to those in the field. Below are some examples:

  • Empathy. This skill enables the social worker to put themselves in their client’s shoes. Having empathy can offer a social worker a deeper understanding of their client’s problems.  
  • Organization. With the many daily responsibilities they have, social workers need to be extremely organized. The amount of paperwork and caseloads can add up from networking, calls, billing, and organizing services for everyone. 
  • Communication. Social workers should be clear, concise, and transparent with clients and their families or care providers, and colleagues. Strong communication can help to mitigate misunderstandings and break down other communication barriers.
  • Problem-Solving. No case is the same and a social worker is often working hard to find the best solution in a difficult situation. A good problem solver can help clients obtain the best services and support needed.
  • Patience. As a social worker, you will work with diverse clients. Maintaining patience and understanding clients from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds is a core component of social work practice.


Are there any social work scholarships available? 

Becoming a social worker is a financial commitment. Luckily, there are social work scholarships available to help students with the cost of earning a degree. Aside from scholarships, there are also student loans or grants available to help cover the cost. 

How much does a social worker make?

The salary of a social worker can range depending on the field, tenure, and education achieved. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760, with the highest 10 percent of social workers making more than $85,820.

How do I find a social worker?

You can reach out to healthcare providers, your health insurance company, or search a referral service/national professional organization like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work

How many social workers are there in the US?

As of 2020, the BLS estimates that there are 713,200 social workers employed in the United States. The most recent BLS data suggests that by 2029, there could be more than 800,000 social workers. 

Who do social workers work with?

A social worker assists people within a wide range of settings, from mental health clinics to schools and hospitals. Social workers can work with individuals or within large communities or organizations and assist with a variety of ailments from addiction treatment to chronic illness and child support services.

Why are social workers important? 

The work of a social worker goes beyond just helping people in need. From promoting core values of  compassion and service to others to framing research within the field to informing policy, social workers actively address and stand up for human rights and social injustices. They strengthen individual people, communities, and try to give voice to the unheard. 

Information on this page was last retrieved in June 2020.