Social Work Career and Licensure Exploration

The practice of social work requires professionals in the field to be knowledgeable about a wide range of human behavioral and developmental areas. These include a deep understanding of: social, cultural and economic institutions; human development and behavior; and interactions between these elements.

The social worker must also be knowledgeable about appropriate interventions and methods to assist people in reaching their full potential. A social worker’s role depends on the type of setting in which the practitioner works, for example non-profit agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, mental health clinics, schools or businesses.

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There are two major categories of social work: the first of which is direct-service — in which practitioners’ help people solve and cope with everyday problems. The second is clinical social work, in which practitioners diagnose and treat psychological, emotional and behavioral issues.

How Social Workers are a Service to Society

Social workers help individuals, families and members of groups and communities restore their capabilities to function in society. The field of social work focuses on interactions between people and the societal institutions that impact a person’s ability to accomplish essential life tasks and realize goals. Social workers are trained to help people improve their developmental capabilities, problem-solving skills and coping mechanisms. Professionals in this field strive to create conditions that are conducive to attaining these goals.

Social Work’s Impact on Society

Social workers connect people with systems and institutions that provide services, resources, support and opportunities for individuals and families.

Some social workers arrange for homebound clients to obtain services in their homes, such as physical or occupational therapy, nursing, meals-on-wheels, home health care or housekeeping services.

Types of Social Workers:

  • Corporate Social Worker: Works with employees whose personal issues, substance use or problems with coworkers may be causing trouble on the job.
  • School Social Worker: School social workers specialize in helping students with school-related issues and personal problems that affect their lives at school and at home. Working at one or more schools, these social workers mediate between community resources and students who need special services.
  • Gerontology Social Worker: Gerontology social workers provide services for elderly people and advise these individuals about housing, transportation, meal delivery and long-term care. The social workers also coordinate client services and may facilitate support groups for family caregivers.
  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers offer counseling or psychotherapy services in clinics, public agencies, medical facilities and private practices.
  • Child and Family Social Workers: These are social workers provide information about resources for children and families, coordinate services and facilitate contact with local and state agencies and community organizations. They also perform supportive casework with parents and offer advice about positive parenting skills. Child and family social workers protect vulnerable or at-risk children and aid families who need help finding or applying for services, such as childcare, food stamps and other benefits. They step in when children are in danger of neglect or abuse, arrange for foster care homes for children, work to reunite families and help evaluate and place adoptions.
  • Clinical Social Workers: Some social workers are licensed to provide therapy for children and families coping with life changes, such as divorce, death or other serious family problems.
  • Medical and Public Health Social Workers: Medical social workers help people who have serious or chronic health problems. They advise individuals and families about methods to deal with being ill. They also find services, such as nursing care, nutrition classes and therapies that are available to help sick individuals and their families.

Education Necessary to Join the Social Work Work Force

Most social work positions require that candidates have the training and expertise that is derived from a four year social work program. For some advanced positions, employers are looking for candidates that have a minimum of a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

Bachelor of Social Work – BSW

A Bachelor’s of Social Work Degree (BSW) is required for most entry-level positions in this field. The four-year bachelor in social work degree prepares students for a variety of direct-service occupations, such as caseworker or mental health assistant. BSW degree programs teach students about human behavior, cultural competency and policies pertaining to social welfare. Students are typically required to complete a supervised internship or fieldwork, during which they can practice in real world situations the skills they have learned in academia.

Master of Social Work – MSW

A master’s degree is often mandatory for social work jobs in some settings, such as schools or healthcare facilities. You will need to find a MSW program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). In most cases, a Master of Social Work Degree (MSW) takes about two years of post-baccalaureate coursework to complete. Students interested in applying to an MSW program may be told that undergraduate degrees in fields other than social work are acceptable. Some schools offer an accelerated degree path, which allows students who already have a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn their MSW in one year. MSW programs train students for employment in their area of specialization and help graduate students develop skills serve a large number of clients, to do clinical assessments and to provide supervision. All MSW programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship. Learn about the (CSWE) Council on Social Work Education

Post-Graduate Fieldwork and Licensure

Most students who want to become clinical social workers must earn a master’s degree in social work. The next step, after graduation with an MSW is to attain licensure. The requirements for licensure will vary from state to state and we recommend you view the specifics of your state by clicking on the name of your state next to the map at the bottom of this page. An example of licensure requirements is the completion of 3,000 hours of clinical experience under the direct supervision of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Once the 3,000 hours are approved, you must also pass a licensing exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) before being granted state-approved licensure or certification. An LCSW qualifies for a variety of positions; for example, providing therapy for clients with mental illness or for people who have experienced upsetting or life-changing situations. Some Licensed Clinical Social Workers become counselors and help individuals and families being impacted by substance abuse and other issues. Learn about the (ASWB) Association of Social Work Boards

Range of Salary by Degree Level for Social Workers

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Workforce Study Group compiled the results of an extensive three-year study and published their findings in August 2020. In a move that captures the zeitgeist of human services, the survey made an effort to more holistically assess the health and happiness of practitioners in the field, not just the cold hard numbers of what they earn. There was a big focus not just on compensation and benefits, but on the level of satisfaction social workers reported with how they are compensated, and with the job in general.

The average starting salary for MSW-prepared social workers was $47,100, but as importantly, more than 72 percent of survey respondents reported being happy with this level of compensation. Among that group, more than 25 percent said they were very happy. And keep in mind that these are salaries for MSW graduates brand new to the field, not mid-career or advanced professionals who have already carved out a niche for themselves.

Though that’s a respectable level of satisfaction by any measure, what is far more telling is that more than 90 percent of survey respondents reported being happy with the job itself, and nearly 83 percent of them took it a step further by saying they were very happy with the position they hold.

Learn more about the (NASW) National Association of Social Workers and the resources the organization provides.

Though the NASW hasn’t conducted a recent salary survey looking strictly at compensation and benefits, an older survey found the median salary for mid-career professionals with an MSW degree to be more than 27 percent higher than for those with a BSW. Those who held a PhD or DSW earned far more, commanding salaries 31 percent higher than their MSW-prepared colleagues.

As old as this survey might be, it’s still an accurate reflection of how salaries are directly proportional to the level of education social workers have.

Job Outlook for Social Work

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2019 reports that the job outlook for social workers is positive. This is due to a projected increase in demand for social services of every kind. The number of jobs for professionals in this field across all specialties are expected to rise 13 percent in the ten-year period leading up to 2029.

Range of Salary by Job Category

Nationally, the median salary for social workers was $50,470 per year, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, a figure that works out to $24.26 per hour. That year, average salaries for social workers in a number of major specialty areas looked like this:

  • Child, school and family social workers earn about $51,030 annually, which would be approximately $24.53 an hour.
  • Healthcare social workers earn an average wage of $59,300 per year or about $28.51 an hour.
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers earn an average of $51,670, which works out to approximately $24.84 an hour.
  • All other social workers that don’t fall into one of these categories can earn a yearly salary of about $61,750, or an hourly wage of about $29.69.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019; Social WorkersSalaries based on national data not school specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2021.

Social Work Practice

One of the main branches of social work is that of psychological counseling. In this realm some social workers have an entrepreneurial bent and wish to open their own private social work practice. This will require that you have attained licensure to operate as a licensed social worker. Keep in mind that each state has its own rules and regulations around what is required to attain a license to practice social work. Once you have a license of sufficient level you can open your own private social work practice. This gives you tremendous diversity in terms of how you schedule meetings with clients, who your clientele includes and a host of other factors that give you control over your own business. There are both advantages and challenges that will be faced when you open your own social work practice.

The primary advantage of opening your own practice in social work is that you will be able to control your work environment to a degree that few other careers allow. This can include specializing in a certain kind of clientele such as working with children or with couples. You will also be able to set your own hours of operation which can be a truly liberating work experience. The ability to determine your own work load is one that is highly desirable, especially in the emotionally intense realm of counseling. Choosing how many clients you see a day and per week give you freedom that is truly amazing. You can also set your own rates and be able to value your time as you see fit without anyone else telling you what your time is worth to you. When you consider all these factors you can see how opening your own private social work practice can give you tremendous flexibility across the spectrum of your business.

There will be challenges however, and this should be taken seriously. Starting your own business will require a high degree of discipline and organizational skills. You will need to consider that you have to build up a client base through word of mouth and advertising. You will have business costs and associated tax responsibilities that are significant. However, by the time you have achieved a level of licensure required to open your own private social work practice, you will have already honed your skills in terms of organization and discipline. You will now merely need to apply them to a new realm, that of operating your own business.

When you consider the various challenges and opportunities presented by having your own private social work practice you will be able to determine for yourself if this sounds like an appealing career direction. For those who find these challenges and opportunities appealing, you will want to be aware that most states require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree to attain the level of licensure needed to open your own practice. Making sure you understand your state’s licensure requirements might warrant a visit to our social work license map on the homepage. Clicking on your state will give you all the specifics in a step-by-step breakdown to help you understand what next steps you need to take to be able to open your own social work practice.

Social Worker Code of Ethics

Being a social worker is a tremendous responsibility as it is a position in which one has power over the lives and well-being of others. As such, it requires one to have a high degree of ethical integrity. As the profession evolved a number of regulatory and guidance bodies have been formed in order to help the profession grow, flourish and maintain a high standard of excellence. One of these bodies is known as the National Association of Social Workers or NASW. The National Association of Social Workers has developed a set of ethical principles which have been accepted throughout the social work profession as an excellent set of formalized guidelines for the practice of ethical social work. What follows is a summation of the major aspects of the NASW Code of Ethics.

The first section of the NASW Code of Ethics is dedicated to how a social worker will conduct themselves during the practice of social work. This section includes instructions that the social worker needs to have a high degree of professionalism in regards to conduct and behavior when acting in a social work capacity. It goes on to describe the importance of continued education in the pursuit of professional development and the maintenance of a certain standard of professional excellence. The social worker should pursue an attitude of service as their primary sense of duty within the profession of social work. Integrity is emphasized and the social worker should ensure that they have a high degree of internal discipline in terms of honesty and forthright behavior. When one is engaging in research activities the social worker is directed to act in an appropriate manner in regards to scholarly discourse, citation and all aspects of appropriate behavior within the research sphere.

In the second section, the social worker’s responsibility to behave in an ethical manner in regards to clients is emphasized. The social worker is directed to always keep the client’s needs and interests at the forefront of their professional relationship. Self-sufficiency and the right of the client to make their own decisions and control their own destiny is regarded as a pillar of the social worker – client relationship. The professional maintenance of privacy and confidentiality is emphasized as the social work is privy to highly personal information during the process of social work. The economics of social work are also discussed to ensure that social workers are acting in an honorable fashion when they set fees and determine the economics of professional interactions. Fees should be set according to client need in addition to the social worker’s own considerations in regard to making a livelihood.

In the third section the primary focus is upon professional integrity in regards to peers and behaving in an ethical manner when one works with fellow social workers. The principles of fairness, respect and courtesy are emphasized as the bedrock of social work peer-to-peer relationships. Colleague’s clients are also to be treated with the utmost professionalism and respect during those situations where one has contact with the clients of a peer might occur.
In the fourth section the discussion turns to that of acting in a professional manner in regards to employers and organizations the social worker may work for.

In the fifth section the principles of ethics within the greater context of social work as a profession are discussed. Ethics should be adhered to during all social work activities. It is advised that a social worker provide community service via access to social work services. The social worker is also called upon to enrich the profession by developing and expanding social work theory and practice.

The final section relates to the social workers ethical responsibilities in regards to society and how ever action taken by the social worker should be for the betterment of society as a whole. The welfare of society is one of the many pillars of social work and should be seen as such and acted upon accordingly.

Social Work Theory

Just as with all professions, the way in which the discipline of social work is evolved is through the development of theory. Social work theory then would include any theoretical frame work or model which would describe ways in which social work services could be delivered to the public. This might be debated within academic institutions, think tanks or within policy creating entities. Different social work groups will advance social work theory in various ways depending on their particular mandate. This will tend to be reflected by the goal of the organization itself.

An academic institution might develop social work theory to advance the discipline in terms of abstract concepts such as the meaning of social work, how it might be applied in entirely new ways to meet the projected demands of the 21st century. Academic institutions tend to operate far more in the theoretical realm than think tanks or policy groups. This in turn will lead to more novel approaches to advancing social work theory that is built upon philosophical grounds rather than practical applications in the real world as might be seen in social work theory among other groups.

Think tanks such as the Social Work Policy Institute (sub-group within the National Association of Social Workers), will work to develop social work theory that has a broad application to social workers across the spectrum. As the mandate of the Social Work Policy Institute is to influence policy makers in government, their theoretical constructs will be largely built around theories that help to reinforce pro-social work policies being implemented. This rather narrow framework of social work theory matches the group’s mandate. Other think tanks or knowledge and theory based bodies might look at social work theory from a very different angle seeking to advance theory that has a very practical application in day to day social work such as that seen in human services agencies. Social work theory then can also be something that helps to drive the creation of new methodologies and practical applications for social work as a profession and not merely the creation of policies that might bolster social work in terms of government subsidies.

Social work theory will also be hotly debated within policy making organizations. Here we might see actors who are not themselves invested in social work who instead approach social work theory from a critical perspective. This can be due to various political agendas being followed by those working to implement policies that either reduces government spending on social work, or the pro-social work contingent who would look to protect and expand any government inputs into the realm of social work. Social work theory in this case could be any kind of theoretical framework that helps forward policies that will impact social work in terms of regulations and government funding.

There are many ways in which social work theory can be created and developed. The way in which social work theory evolves is heavily reliant on the kind of institution that is developing the theory. Organizational memory and mandates will have the largest impact on the kind of social work theory that comes out of any group. In many ways, social work theory is more a reflection of the organization it comes out of than it is of some objective source of social work understanding.

Social Work Policy

Social work policy is the creation of directives for management to act on the material interest of the furtherance of social work objectives. There can be a variety of levels at which social work policy is defined and created as well as carried out. Small social work or human services organizations can have policy frameworks that operate within the organization itself. There can also be large scale organizations that develop and implement social work policy. There are also governmental agencies which can formulate and carry out social work policies which can affect groups as small as local towns, to large cities and even social work policies that impact entire nations. The commonalities one can find with all of these groups and their creation and implementation of social work policy is that the policy itself is one which lends itself to the betterment of individuals and groups of individuals through initiatives of various kinds.

Social work policy will sometimes operate solely within a smaller organization. An example of this might be a protocol that is developed and adhered to within a women’s shelter for survivors of domestic abuse around confidentiality.
Social work policy might be one that is carried out within a large organization. You can see an example of this in the mandatory reporting of child and elder abuse laws that are found within most state’s Department of Human Services. There are a number of other examples of this such as workplace protocols around professional standards.

Social work policy might be formulated purely within a non-governmental organization in order to lobby government policy makers on behalf of various stakeholders. An example of this is the Social Work Policy Institute which is a policy think tank that operates under the auspices of the National Association of Social Work (NASW). Their goal is to strengthen the influence of professional social workers in regards to public policy especially at the national level of governance.

Social work policy is also created and steered within governmental organizations. This process is one that can run the gamut from informed policy and decision making, to highly politicized actions taken by various officials on behalf of special interest groups. Social work policy at the governmental level is one that is only influenced by the opinions and knowledge of social workers and unlike other examples rarely has the direct formative relationship with actual social workers.

Regardless of the organization or level of impact a social work policy has, all social work policies are frameworks for actions and initiatives that will impact the lives of very real people who receive services from social workers. It is always important to keep in mind that while policies may be created from a theoretical and knowledge based standpoint, the end results of these social work policies will translate into real world outcomes for the individuals and groups who are to be affected. Keeping this in mind helps to ensure that process of formulating social work policies maintains at its center the goal of improving the lives of those people whom the policy will impact.

Social Work Education Requirements By State

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

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