Social Work Careers

A career in social work can take you into diverse corners of the community. Social workers comprise an essential element of almost every social institution, providing critical support, resources and advocacy to those who need it most. In our guide to social work careers, we’ll unpack the range of roles you can aspire to should you undertake a degree in social work.

17 Types of Social Work Career Fields  

  • Case Manager: Social work case managers work in many settings, from aging to immigrant and refugee support services across all sectors. Case managers plan and monitor a variety of services on behalf of clients, parallel with ongoing advocacy.
  • Child Welfare Social Worker: Social workers focusing on child welfare ensure children’s well-being and permanency and work to strengthen families. Often working with child welfare agencies, social workers in this field advocate for children on economic and social levels, incorporating relationships with teachers, law enforcement, medical professionals and others to keep children safe.
  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers, or sometimes referred to as licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) focus on assessments, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses and emotional and behavioral issues.
  • Community Social Worker: Community social workers work at micro, mezzo and macro levels in the community. Community social workers are sometimes employed at a state or local government level, and other times are contracted by nonprofits or grassroots organizations. 
  • Corrections Social Worker: Social workers in corrections work to reduce recidivism by holding programs and classes for inmates in a rehabilitation setting or addressing their mental health and behavioral concerns.
  • Disability Social Worker: Social workers who focus on disabilities know the legal rights of clients with disabilities and help families, clients and communities find services that enable independence.
  • Forensic Social Worker: Social workers in forensic settings are familiar with law and legal systems, acting as the mediator and educator between clients and justice systems, lawmakers and members of the public.
  • Geriatric Social Worker: Gerontological social workers understand the issues older clients experience as they age. They are knowledgeable about legislation and social programs that impact the older adult population so they can advocate for care, address mental health issues and perform case management.
  • Medical Social Worker: Providing support to patients and their families, medical social workers assist with the care of those in medical settings. Medical social workers may provide psychosocial assessments, education, crisis intervention, and help patients and their families understand treatment and available resources.
  • Mental Health Social Worker: Spending their time assessing, diagnosing, treating and preventing mental, behavioral and emotional issues, mental health social workers play a critical role in improving overall well-being and mental health in our society. 
  • International Social Worker: Bringing their humanitarian work overseas, international social workers are familiar with many cultures, languages and domestic social work approaches.
  • Military Social Worker: Working with active-duty and reserve military and veterans and their families, military social workers understand the military culture and provide services to address mental or behavioral issues. They also provide support during deployments.
  • Psychiatric Social Worker: These social workers support patients who suffer from depression, severe anxiety, psychotic or substance-related disorders and other conditions.
  • Public Health Social Worker: Bridging the gap between public health and social work, these professionals use their clinical and community knowledge to support public health.
  • School Social Worker: A school social worker advocates on behalf of students. They work with students, parents and teachers to set students up for success in the classroom and at home.
  • Substance Abuse Social Worker: These social workers are trained to help people experiencing problems with their mental health and addiction. Common modalities they use include individual and group therapy and crisis intervention.
  • Trauma Social Worker: Some social workers choose to focus on trauma-informed practice, working with all types of populations by intervening at the micro and mezzo level.

Types of Social Work

Social work spans all levels of society and is often divided into three broad practice categories: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. These levels of social work refer to the scale and reach of the work; however, it’s vital to recognize that most social work jobs will have some crossover. Social work can also be divided into clinical social work jobs or direct social work practice jobs.

Macro, Mezzo, and Micro Social Work

Macro-level social work focuses on large-scale change of social policy or implementing the rollout of new social programs affecting many people on a large scale. There is unlikely to be a direct one-on-one interaction with clients.

Mezzo social work roles tend to be with small- to medium-size organizations, such as schools or neighborhoods. Mezzo social work often focuses on work at an institutional level, such as transformation of the group’s culture or management. Mezzo social work practitioners may engage in work that encompasses both micro and macro levels—meeting the needs of individuals while also considering broader social issues.

Micro social work roles include social work at its most granular level. These social work positions often involve working with individuals or families face-to-face. In these micro interactions, social workers may allocate resources, support individuals to find housing and access health care, or advocate for them. Micro social workers can work with families, children, members of the military and those with addiction or psychiatric disorders.

Clinical Social Work vs. Direct Social Work Practice

Clinical social work often requires a master’s degree in social work and a state license. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) undergo additional training and specialization to perform services that include diagnosis and treatment. LCSW commonly work in the mental health sector as substance abuse counselors or group therapists.

Direct services social workers can practice with a bachelor’s degree. Their training allows them to work directly with clients as case managers or community health workers. The requirements to become a direct services social worker tend to be more relaxed.

Should I Become a Social Worker?

If you have a passion for helping others overcome obstacles in their life, a career in social work may be for you. Child, family and school social workers, health care social workers, and mental health and substance abuse social workers all require active listening, social perceptiveness, critical thinking and coordination skills. If these come naturally to you, becoming a social worker could be your next step. 

The field of social work requires much more than just those skills, however. As a social worker you are responsible for the care of clients and populations in removing barriers to their health, supporting their development, and providing therapy. The job outlook for social workers is projected to grow 13% from 2019 to 2029, with mental health and substance abuse social worker positions increasing 17%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Where do Social Workers Work?

The rich diversity of social work environments attracts many to the profession. Social workers can find work in settings as varied as schools, the military, hospitals, outpatient facilities and child welfare organizations. Work environments can also change on a day-to-day basis for social workers employed in roles where travel is required.

Social workers work at three levels, macro, micro and mezzo, supporting policy change for communities such as welfare, working in schools of local government removing barriers to community health, or working with clients in private practices, family homes, or in many of the settings mentioned above.

How much do social workers make? 

Social workers earn an average of $51,760 as of May 2020, according to the BLS. However, salary depends on location, work environment, experience and type of social work. For instance, health care social workers earn an average of $57,630 while those working in state government earn an average of $49,860. 

A social worker’s salary will depend on location, level and experience. For example, child, family and school social workers in New Jersey earn an average of $71,110, while a child, family and school social worker in Pittsburgh may earn $45,820

Is there a demand for social workers?

Yes. The BLS job outlook for social workers predicts an increase by 13% from 2019 to 2029. However, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) expects the supply of social workers (PDF, 284 KB) will exceed demand in the next few years. With the role of the social worker ever-changing, the demand may be higher than projections.

Career Advancement for Social Workers

There are many advancement opportunities for social workers who wish to ascend the ranks of their profession. You can further your career as a social worker by undertaking a master’s in social work, completing licensure exams, or becoming specialized or highly experienced in a particular area.

Those with master’s degrees and licensure can access clinical social worker jobs and are better positioned to win managerial roles. According to the BLS, the 10% of social workers with the highest pay earn more than $85,820. These more highly-paid roles are typically directorial.

Master’s in Social Work Job Opportunities

The benefits of an MSW, or Master of Social Work, are plentiful. The MSW demonstrates you have additional knowledge and skills, and provides a wider variety of careers in social work. Jobs that require an MSW include clinical social work. Most health care, mental health and substance abuse social worker roles may also require an MSW. An online MSW program can be an ideal way to achieve the degree while fitting it in around your life and work commitments.

Information on this page was last retrieved in July 2020.