Social Workers

Career, Salary and Education Information

What Social Workers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

Duties of Social Workers

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
  • Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Maintain case files and records
  • Develop and evaluate programs and services to ensure that basic client needs are met
  • 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 or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Advocacy is an important aspect of social work. Social workers advocate or raise awareness with and on behalf of their clients and the social work profession on local, state, and national levels.

Some social workers—referred to as bachelor's social workers (BSW)—work with groups, community organizations, and policymakers to develop or improve programs, services, policies, and social conditions. This focus of work is referred to as macro social work.

Social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy; they work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations; and they refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals. Clinical social workers can develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals and may adjust the treatment plan if necessary based on their client's progress. They may work in a variety of specialties. Clinical social workers who have not completed two years of supervised work are often called master's social workers (MSW).

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. Students and their families are often referred to social workers to deal with problems such as aggressive behavior, bullying, or frequent absences from school.

Healthcare social workers help patients understand their diagnosis and make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. For example, they may help people make the transition from the hospital back to their homes and communities. In addition, they may provide information on services, such as home healthcare or support groups, to help patients manage their illness or disease. Social workers help doctors and other healthcare professionals understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on patients' 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. Many clinical social workers function in these roles as well.

Work Environment for Social Workers[About this section] [To Top]

Social workers hold about 682,100 jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up social workers was distributed as follows:

Child, family, and school social workers 317,600
Healthcare social workers 176,500
Mental health and substance abuse social workers 123,900
Social workers, all other 64,000

The largest employers of social workers are as follows:

Individual and family services 18%
State government, excluding education and hospitals 14
Ambulatory healthcare services 13
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 13
Hospitals; state, local, and private 12

Although most social workers work in an office, they may spend time visiting clients. 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.

Social workers may work remotely through distance counseling, using videoconferencing or mobile technology to meet with clients and organize support and advocacy groups.

Social Worker Work Schedules

The majority of social workers work 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] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Social Workers near you!

Although some social workers only need a bachelor's degree in social work, clinical social workers must have a master's degree and 2 years of experience in a supervised clinical setting after they've completed their degree. Clinical social workers must also be licensed by their state.

Education and Training for Social Workers

There are multiple educational pathways to becoming a social worker, depending on the specialty.

A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for entry-level administrative positions. However, some employers may hire workers who have a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as psychology or sociology.

A BSW prepares students for direct-service positions such as caseworker or mental health assistant. These 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 positions require a master's degree in social work (MSW), which generally takes 2 years to complete. MSW programs prepare students for work in their chosen specialty by developing clinical assessment and management skills. All programs require students to complete a supervised practicum or an 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 major is acceptable, courses in psychology, sociology, economics, and political science are recommended. Some programs allow graduates with a bachelor's degree in social work to earn their master's degree in 1 year.

In 2017, there were more than 500 bachelor's degree programs and more than 200 master's degree programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Two years of supervised training and experience after obtaining an MA degree is typically required for clinical social workers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Social Workers

All states require clinical social workers to be licensed, and most states require licensure or certification for nonclinical social workers. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a master's degree in social work and a minimum of 2 years of 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 for Social Workers

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.

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

Interpersonal skills. Social workers need to be able to work with different groups of people. They need strong interpersonal skills to foster healthy and productive relationships with their clients and colleagues.

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

Problem-solving skills. Social workers need to develop practical and innovative solutions to their clients' problems.

Social Worker Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

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Entry Level Experienced

The median annual wage for social workers is $46,890. 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 $28,800, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $78,510.

Median annual wages for social workers are as follows:

Social workers, all other $60,230
Healthcare social workers 53,760
Child, family, and school social workers 43,250
Mental health and substance abuse social workers 42,700

The median annual wages for social workers in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private $57,650
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 52,370
Ambulatory healthcare services 47,130
State government, excluding education and hospitals 44,320
Individual and family services 39,260

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

Job Outlook for Social Workers[About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 15 percent over the next ten years, much faster average for all occupations. Increased demand for healthcare and social services will drive demand for social workers, but growth will vary by specialization.

Employment of child, family, and school social workers is projected to grow 13 percent over the next ten years, faster than the average for all occupations. 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.

Employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 19 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations. 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 18 percent over the next ten years, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment will grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to treatment programs, which are staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail.

Job Prospects for Social Workers

Overall, job prospects should be very good, particularly for clinical social workers. The continuing growth of healthcare spending and treatment increases the opportunities for clinical social workers as compared to social workers who do not offer treatment services.

Employment projections data for Social Workers, 2016-26
Occupational Title Employment, 2016 Projected Employment, 2026 Change, 2016-26
Percent Numeric
Social workers 682,100 784,200 15 102,100
  Child, family, and school social workers 317,600 359,700 13 42,100
  Healthcare social workers 176,500 209,300 19 32,700
  Mental health and substance abuse social workers 123,900 146,100 18 22,200
  Social workers, all other 64,000 69,000 8 5,000


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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