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What Social Workers Do About this section

Social workers
Child and family social workers protect vulnerable children and support families in need of assistance.

Social workers help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional problems.

Duties

Social workers typically do the following:

  • Identify people and communities in need of help
  • Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Research, refer, and advocate for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and healthcare, to assist and improve a client’s well-being
  • Respond to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Monitor clients' situations, and follow up to ensure that they have improved
  • Maintain case files and records
  • Provide psychotherapy services

Social workers help people cope with challenges in their lives. They help with a wide range of situations, such as adopting a child, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or preventing and treating substance abuse.

Some social workers get involved at a broad level to help community organizations and policymakers develop or improve social programs, services, and conditions. This is sometimes referred to as macro social work.

Advocacy is an important aspect of social work. Social workers advocate or raise awareness with and on behalf of their clients and constituents. Additionally, they may advocate for the social work occupation on local, state, and national levels.

Social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), or have a similar title; specific titles vary by state. They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy; work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations; and refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health workers. Clinical social workers may develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare workers and may adjust the treatment plan if necessary based on their client’s progress. They may work in a variety of specialties.

The following are examples of types of social workers:

Child and family social workers protect vulnerable children and help families in need of assistance. They help families find housing or services, such as childcare, or apply for benefits, such as food stamps. They intervene when children are in danger of neglect or abuse. Some help arrange adoptions, locate foster families, or work to reunite families.

School social workers work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to develop plans and strategies to improve students’ academic performance and social development. They help students with problems such as aggressive behavior or bullying. Additionally, school social workers meet with families to discuss issues such as access to special education resources or frequent student absences.

Healthcare social workers help clients understand their diagnosis and adjust their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. For example, they may help people transition from the hospital to their homes and communities. In addition, they may provide information about services, such as home healthcare or support groups, to help clients manage their illness or disease. Social workers help doctors and other healthcare workers understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on clients’ mental and emotional health. Some healthcare social workers specialize in geriatric social work, hospice and palliative care, or medical social work.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers help clients with mental illnesses or addictions. They provide information on services, such as support groups and 12-step programs, to help clients cope with their illness. These workers often are licensed clinical social workers.

Work Environment About this section

Social workers
Although most social workers work in an office, they may spend a lot of time away from the office visiting clients.

Social workers held about 715,600 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up social workers was distributed as follows:

Child, family, and school social workers 335,300
Healthcare social workers 184,900
Mental health and substance abuse social workers 124,000
Social workers, all other 71,400

The largest employers of social workers were as follows:

Individual and family services 18%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 14
Ambulatory healthcare services 14
State government, excluding education and hospitals 14

Most social workers work in an office setting. They may spend time visiting clients and meeting with colleagues and community specialists or other support workers. School social workers may be assigned to multiple schools and travel around the school district to see students. Understaffing and large caseloads may cause the work to be stressful.

Injuries and Illnesses

Social workers, all other have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. (“Social workers, all other” includes criminal justice social workers, adult protective service social workers, and forensic social workers, among other titles.)  

Work Schedules

Most social workers are employed full time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.

How to Become a Social Worker About this section

social workers image
Clinical social workers need a master's degree, supervised experience, and a license to provide mental health or counseling services.

Social workers typically need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They also may need a license; specific requirements vary by state.

Clinical social workers need a master’s degree, supervised clinical experience, and a license from the state in which they practice.

Education and Training

Most social workers need either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for entry-level nonclinical social worker positions. BSW programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, social welfare policy, and ethics in social work. All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

Clinical social workers typically need a master’s degree in social work (MSW). These programs prepare students for work in their chosen specialty by developing clinical assessment and diagnostic skills. Some nonclinical social workers also may complete master’s-level programs. MSW programs generally take 2 years to complete and include a supervised practicum or internship.

A bachelor’s degree in social work is not required in order to enter a master’s degree program in social work. Although a bachelor’s degree in almost any field is acceptable, common majors include public policy and social services, psychology, or social science. Recommended coursework includes sociology, economics, and political science. Some programs allow graduates with a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn their master’s degree in under 2 years.

After obtaining an MSW degree, clinical social workers must complete supervised training and experience. The length of clinical training varies by state but may take several years.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require clinical social workers to be licensed. Some states also require nonclinical social workers to have a license or credential.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program and supervised clinical experience after graduation. After completing their supervised experience, clinical social workers must pass a clinical exam to be licensed.

Because licensing requirements vary by state, those interested should contact their state licensure board. For more information about regulatory licensure boards by state, visit the Association of Social Work Boards.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Clients talk to social workers about challenges in their lives. To provide effective help, social workers must be able to listen to and understand their clients’ needs.

Compassion. Social workers often work with people who are in stressful and difficult situations. To develop strong relationships, they must have patience and empathy for their clients.

Interpersonal skills. Social workers must be able to work with different groups of people. They need to foster healthy and productive relationships with their clients, colleagues, and other support specialists.

Organizational skills. Social workers must help and manage multiple clients, often assisting with their paperwork or documenting their treatment.

Problem-solving skills. Social workers must analyze their clients’ complex situations and develop practical solutions.

Pay About this section

Social Workers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Social workers

$50,390

Counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists

$48,400

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,520, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,840.

Median annual wages for social workers in May 2021 were as follows:

Social workers, all other $61,190
Healthcare social workers 60,840
Child, family, and school social workers 49,150
Mental health and substance abuse social workers 49,130

In May 2021, the median annual wages for social workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals $61,190
Ambulatory healthcare services 58,700
State government, excluding education and hospitals 48,090
Individual and family services 46,640

Most social workers are employed full time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.

Job Outlook About this section

Social Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists

14%

Social workers

12%

Total, all occupations

8%

 

Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.

About 78,300 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Projected employment of social workers varies by occupation (see table). Child and family social workers will be needed to work with families to strengthen parenting skills, prevent child abuse, and identify alternative homes for children who are unable to live with their biological families. In schools, more social workers will be needed as student enrollments rise. However, employment growth of child, family, and school social workers may be limited by federal, state, and local budget constraints.

Healthcare social workers will continue to be needed to help aging populations and their families adjust to new treatments, medications, and lifestyles.

Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs, which may be staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail.

Employment projections data for social workers, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Social workers

21-1020 715,600 804,800 12 89,200 Get data

Child, family, and school social workers

21-1021 335,300 377,400 13 42,200 Get data

Healthcare social workers

21-1022 184,900 209,300 13 24,400 Get data

Mental health and substance abuse social workers

21-1023 124,000 142,500 15 18,500 Get data

Social workers, all other

21-1029 71,400 75,500 6 4,100 Get data

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