What is Social Work?

The demand for social workers is steadily rising at above-average rates in America. Between 2018 and 2028, social work employment will increase by an estimated 11%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As a result, there is a great opportunity for mid-career professionals to leverage their knowledge and industry connections to fill the demand for social workers.

What is a social worker?

Social workers are advocates that raise awareness for disadvantaged populations like children, older adults and people with medical conditions.

Below, we’ve created a guide detailing what social work is and the steps you can take to become a social worker.

Table of Contents

The Definition of Social Work

First things first, what is social work?

Social work is a broad field that offers an array of occupations for those interested in serving others.

Social work falls under the category of helping professions. The American Psychological Association defines helping professions as “occupations that provide health and education services to individuals and groups.”

Because this profession focuses on helping others, it can take many forms. Common examples include family and child social workers who aid children in the foster care system and health care social workers who counsel patients undergoing treatment.

Social work takes a holistic approach to aiding others by examining both the individual and his or her environment. The International Federation of Social Workers defines social work as:

“A practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”

This aim of uplifting and aiding those in need is the driving force behind social work and what inspires many to pursue a career in this field.

Why Become a Social Worker?

When the desired and most beneficial outcomes are met, social work can be rewarding. This profession requires compassion, patience and dedication to a cause greater than any one individual. Here are a few reasons to consider becoming a social worker:

  1. A Sense of Fulfillment
    Having a career in social work means you help people overcome challenges in their lives. As such, social workers feel a deep sense of personal achievement. In fact, social work supervisors landed on Forbes’ list of top 10 most meaningful careers.
  2. Social Workers are in Demand
    A rising need for social workers is occurring not just in the United States, but around the world. This is in part due to studies that link government spending on social work to healthier, safer communities.
  3. Social Work is Shifting Focus
    Another reason to join the profession is that social work is undergoing positive changes. In the traditional framework, social workers offer tools and guidance to help solve problems. However, social work is now shifting to take a preventive approach. Rather than waiting for a problem to arise, social workers work proactively, equipping people with skills and counseling to navigate problems.

Educational Pathways in Social Work

The level of education needed to become a social worker varies depending on the role you are pursuing. For example, a community outreach organizer or group home worker should complete a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). To work in a clinical capacity and the majority of school and hospital settings, you will need to earn a master’s in social work and become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). For those who already hold a BSW, there is an option of pursuing an advanced standing MSW in lieu of a traditional MSW program.

At the highest levels of education, individuals may seek a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW). A DSW is an advanced degree that enables graduates to work in administrative or clinical social work. Additionally, a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in social work is opportune for individuals interested in research-focused work.

With the previous information in mind, it’s vital to seek out an accredited program. Social work programs are accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). A CSWE accreditation ensures the social work program meets the professional standards of today’s market.

Seven Principles of Social Work

What is social work? Examining the field’s core principles offers a well-rounded answer.

There are seven key principles of social work developed by professor Felix Biestek, who died in 1994. The principles that Biestek identified address common questions of ethics in social work.

  1. Acceptance: This is a core principle of social work because it requires that a social worker accepts their client as is. As Biestek noted: “Acceptance does not mean approval. The object of acceptance is not ‘the good’ but ’the real.’” Once a client feels this acceptance, it will be easier to open up to the social worker.
  2. Individualization: This principle that every person is unique keeps social workers from generalizing and making assumptions based on past clients or groups of people.
  3. Self-determination: Clients have the right to make their own decisions. The social worker should not impose their choices on a client or pressure them to come to a certain decision.
  4. Non-judgmental attitude: A social worker is to remain unbiased, recognize that each human being has dignity and worth and is neither good nor bad. “Blame and praise may have the same effect on a client: to hide a part of himself so as not to be judged,” Biestek said.
  5. Confidentiality: You’ve probably heard of doctor-patient confidentiality. Social workers also protect their clients by ensuring information shared remains confidential. This is crucial to develop trust and encourage the client to speak freely.
  6. Controlled emotional involvement: While a social worker should be dedicated to their clients, they must maintain an objective emotional involvement. This way, they can respond appropriately to the emotions shared by the client.
  7. Purposeful expression of feelings: Being a social worker requires a great deal of emotional intelligence, recognizing the client’s need to freely express their feelings.

What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Social Worker?

What is a social worker, and what do they do? There is no cookie-cutter archetype of a social worker but a wide array of roles, with different responsibilities attached to them.

Different Types of Social Workers

  1. Community social workers: These workers strive to heal and fix communities. They assess problems and work to implement systems that solve them.
  2. Criminal justice social workers: These social workers advocate for those in the criminal justice system and their family members. They can connect those charged with crimes and their families with resources.
  3. Medical social workers: Health care social workers offer services to patients needing emotional, financial and other types of support. They can help patients and their families form post-discharge plans and connect them with community resources. They can also provide counseling as patients weigh medical options.
  4. Military and veteran social workers: Working with those serving in the military is another option for social workers. They counsel clients and support their families. They also help clients transition to civilian life.
  5. Child and family social workers: These social workers help children in unstable homes and those who have undergone trauma. Child Protective Services check in on 3.2 million children each year to help ensure their well-being.

There are many other types of social workers and roles to pursue in this field, from working with the older adults to serving as a mental health counselor. There are also options to work internationally as a social worker. For instance, social workers are desperately needed to provide emotional support and other aid to families displaced by war.

Licensure Needed

Social work positions require licensure; however, the requirements vary by state. You likely have to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam before obtaining a license. There are three main types of licensure:

  1. Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
  2. Master Social Worker (LMSW)
  3. Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

All three require that you pass the ASWB exam and complete supervised hours. Requirements vary, so research the state and federal requirements for social workers.

What Skills do Social Workers Need?

Because social workers can take on a variety of roles, there is no defined list of skills it takes to be a social worker. However, there are certain skills all social workers should possess.

  1. Emotional intelligence (E.Q.): E.Q. is defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Social workers must be self-aware and able to decipher the emotions of those they are helping.
  2. Listening: To truly help a person with their problems, social workers must be active listeners. When clients feel they are being heard, they are much more likely to share and develop trust with a social worker.
  3. Tolerance: Being tolerant of all clients and treating them with respect is critical.
  4. Communication: Social workers have difficult conversations with their clients and, in some cases, the families of their clients. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively is an especially important skill for social workers.
  5. Strength: Social work is emotionally taxing, with painful and heartbreaking situations. Social workers strive to heal and help others. This requires resilience and strength.

Social work also requires compassion, the ability to set boundaries, and organizational skills.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

There are multiple sectors in which a social worker can pursue a career. Social workers (41%) are employed by the government in local, state and federal capacities. Social workers employed by the government usually work in the Department of Health and Human Services. Branches include the child welfare branch, public health and safety, and the unemployment office.

Private, nonprofit and charitable organizations are the second-largest employer of social workers, accounting for 34.3% of jobs. Private for-profit companies employ 22% of social workers. A growing number of companies are utilizing the skills of social workers to improve the work environment for their employees. The remaining 2.5% of social workers are self-employed.

Social workers are useful in many situations, so they can work in numerous locations and environments.

To sum up, social work serves individuals and communities, helping them heal and grow. Social workers have an incredible ability to improve the lives of others. The demand for social workers is sizable, with immense potential for individuals who want to selflessly advocate for marginalized people and groups. There are a plethora of industry specializations — like criminal justice or medical social workers — to leverage personal experience or interests. With the appropriate education, the opportunities to inspire change are endless.