What is Social Work?
Social work is the assisting of families, children, and individuals with social, interpersonal, financial and medical issues. Employees in the field of social work are most commonly social workers or social and human services assistants. They assess clients' needs and determine what programs or counsel will help them live full, happy lives.
Social workers and assistants have the ability to work with many types of people in a variety of settings. They may work with children and families, older adults, or people with mental illnesses. They often work in hospitals, nursing homes, substance abuse centers, and government agencies. The duties of a social worker or social services assistant may include planning group therapy, assisting clients with applying for social programs such as Medicare and welfare, and maintaining accurate client records.
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Career Education in Social Work
Social science degree programs in social work are available at all educational levels, from an associate degree to a PhD. The most common social work degree programs are the bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) and the master's degree in social work (MSW).
Certificates in Social Work
Graduate certifications are available for social work professionals interested in expanding their knowledge base. Graduate certificates are short courses of study that usually require four to ten courses for graduation. Certifications often focus on one aspect of the social work profession, such as gerontology or child services. Credits earned in graduate certificate programs are frequently applicable to graduate degree programs.
Associate Degrees in Social Work
An associate degree in social work is preparation for an entry-level career as a social and human services assistant. The associate degree requires both general education courses and courses specific to social work. Common courses include abnormal psychology, introduction to gerontology, developmental psychology and communications. Associate degree programs often require an internship.
An associate degree typically takes two years to complete and is considered to be excellent preparation for a bachelor's degree program. Courses taken in an associate degree program in social work often can be credited towards a BSW degree. Associate degree programs are most commonly found at community and technical colleges.
Bachelor's Degrees in Social Work
A bachelor's degree in social work is the minimum education required to become an entry-level social worker. Bachelor's degrees usually take four years to complete and require both general education courses and courses specific to social work. BSW courses often focus on social work values and ethics, working with a diverse population, social welfare policies, and human growth and development. Bachelor's degrees in social work require an internship for graduation.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Social Work?
While those who enroll in social work majors often strive to become social workers, there are a number of related careers to choose from.
Social Work Career Paths
Social and Human Services Assistant
Social and health services assistants work with clients to determine what social programs can assist them. They are responsible for meeting with clients, assessing their needs, and ensuring that they receive the benefits or programs they require.
The duties of a social and health services assistant are numerous. In substance abuse centers, a social services assistant may be responsible for running group activities. In a mental health facility, social services assistants may teach life skills to clients or help them make the transition from the facility to a group home.
Social and human services assistants work in a variety of settings with many types of people. They work in hospitals, mental health facilities, group homes, adult day care centers, and private and public service agencies. Social and human services assistants meet with the client's family and other health care providers to ensure that the client's needs are fully met.
A bachelor's degree is not typically required for obtaining a position as a social and health services assistant. A certification or associate degree in social work can be helpful, but often social and health services assistants are only required to hold a high school diploma. Social and health services assistants may be required to be licensed by the state in which they work, but they are frequently allowed to work without a license.
The level of responsibility given to a social and health services assistant is often directly connected to the level of education they have attained. Someone with an associate degree in social work, for example, will likely have greater responsibilities than someone with only a high school diploma. Higher education also leads to greater professional independence and a higher salary.
Social and health services assistants work with clients going through difficult periods in their lives, so it is important that they be sympathetic and kind. Social and health services assistants are responsible enough to work autonomously, but they also can work well as part of a team. They are detail-oriented and able to keep thorough client records.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social and health services assistants can expect job opportunities to increase much faster than average. In an attempt to lower operating costs, social workers in many agencies are being replaced by social and health services assistants.
Social workers assist clients with a variety of situations, including housing issues and financial and family problems. They provide emotional support, counsel clients on available and applicable social programs, and they attempt to improve the overall quality of their clients' lives.
Social workers are found in many settings including schools, nursing homes, government agencies, and hospitals. Most social workers specialize in one area of social work. Specializations include child, family, and school social work, gerontology, medical and public health social work, mental health and substance abuse social work, and social work planners and policymakers.
Child, family, and school social workers provide services and assistance to children and families. Their goal is to improve the overall functioning of the family and its members. Child, family, and school social workers help counsel pregnant teenagers, assist teachers dealing with difficult students, and find foster care for children in abusive homes. Their job titles may include child welfare employee, family services social worker, and child protective social worker.
Social workers with a specialization in gerontology work with older adults. They help them make decisions about health care and assist them with social programs, such as Medicare. They provide support groups for children of aging parents and give advice on housing and long term care options. Social workers specializing in gerontology frequently work in nursing homes and adult day cares.
Medical and public health social workers help clients cope with severe illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer and AIDS. Social workers specializing in this field work with the patient as well as with the family members and friends affected by the patient's condition. They counsel clients, help coordinate home healthcare services, and offer advice to the patient's family members. A Master's in social work is typically required for positions in this area of social work.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers are responsible for evaluating and assisting patients with mental illness or substance abuse problems. They provide group and individual therapy, coordinate interventions, and assist clients in developing life skills. Mental health and substance abuse social workers, usually referred to as clinical social workers, often work in group homes and substance abuse centers.
Social work planners and policy makers develop public and private programs designed to address social issues. They research existing public policy and suggest new solutions to social problems. They create new programs and legislation and are often responsible for finding program funding.
Though social workers work in a variety of environments performing a wide range of duties, all must have a strong desire to help people. Social workers are sensitive and caring people who work well with a diverse population. They are mature and can handle difficult situations with good judgment and discretion.
Social workers typically are required to hold at least a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW). Many positions, particularly those in healthcare and clinical settings, require a Master's degree in social work (MSW). Social workers must be licensed by the state in which they work.
Social Work Administration and Management
Social work administrators and managers typically begin their careers as social workers and advance with education and experience. They are responsible for setting program policies and procedures, and ensuring that they are followed. Social work administrators and managers create and manage budgets and staff. They continually assess the effectiveness of their programs and modify them when necessary.
Social work administrators and managers are responsible for much of their program's administrative work, and they complete it accurately and thoroughly. They often meet with community leaders to discuss fund raising and agency activities, and they must be able to communicate effectively with them. Above all, social work administrators and managers have a desire to create and maintain effective programs for people in need.
Social work administrators and managers manage social services agencies such as substance abuse centers, crisis centers, and child welfare agencies. They typically are required to possess a master's degree in social work at minimum. Graduate degrees in business and management can also be helpful for earning a position as a social work administrator or manager.
Career Outlook for Social Work
According to 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in social work are expected to increase faster than average through 2022, with a projected growth rate of 19 percent. A growing older population will create a larger need for social services, particularly in the field of gerontology. Substance abuse programs, nursing homes, hospice, and long-term care facilities are expected to have the most opportunities for employment.
Certification, Licensure, and Associations
Social and health services assistants are often hired without a bachelor's degree, and they are not typically required to be licensed. Because these positions require only an associate degree, social and health services assistants are often paid less than social workers. All states have licensure requirements for social workers, though these requirements vary from state to state. Most states require the completion of a bachelor's or Master's degree in social work from an accredited school, along with the successful completion of an American Social Work Board (ASWB) examination. Social work programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
The American Social Work Board offers four examinations to choose from, depending on one's level of education and experience. A bachelor's or a Master's degree in social work is required to take the bachelor's or Master's degree examinations. An advanced generalist examination is open to those with an MSW degree and two years of supervised filed experience. The clinical examination is open to MSW degree holders with two years of direct clinical social work experience.
Continuing education is typically required to maintain licensure. Requirements vary from state to state, but 30 hours of continuing education every two years is a common requirement.
Voluntary credentials also are available to social work degree holders through the National Association of Social Work (NASW), a professional association for social workers. The NASW offers three voluntary credentials, each of which require graduation from a CSWE accredited program.
The Academy of Certified Social Workers is a credential offered to current NASW members with an MSW degree. They must have two years of supervised experience in social work and recommendations from their supervisor and two peers. In addition to the MSW, 20 hours of continuing education is required.
The Qualified Clinical Social Worker is a credential offered to current NASW members with a MSW and two years of supervised clinical experience. They must maintain a current state social work license and carry the Academy of Certified Social Workers credential.
The Diploma in Clinical Social Work is a credential offered to current NASW members holding an MSW or doctorate from an accredited social work program. Five years of clinical experience and 20 hours of clinical coursework are required to apply for this credential. Candidates must present evaluations from both a supervisor and a peer, hold a current state license, and promise to adhere to the codes and standards of the NASW.
For Canadian citizens, licensing is regulated by each province. Requirements vary, though most require graduation from a social work program accredited by the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work (CASSW). Some provinces require a bachelor's of social work only, while others require that licensed social workers hold at least a Master's of Social Work.
Social Work Associations and Certification Bodies:
- Association for Advanced Training in the Behavioral Sciences (AATBS)
- Child Welfare League of America
- American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
- Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)
- Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work
- Canadian Association of Social Workers
- Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
- Society for Social Work and Research
"Social Workers," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm