People who go into social work usually have an interest in the welfare of others, as well as a desire to help people in need. Social workers help their clients become more functional members of society by working to improve their relationships and personal and family problems. They work with clients facing everything from inadequate housing to unemployment to a serious illness, addiction, or disability. Social workers also help people who have domestic problems like child or spousal abuse. Most social workers have a specialty. They might focus on social issues pertaining to the elderly or to families and children, for instance, or they might work with people who suffer from chronic diseases, mental illness, or substance abuse.
Children and Families
Some social workers work with children, families, and schools to provide assistance to improve the social and psychological condition of children and their families. These social workers are called child welfare social workers, family services social workers, child protective services social workers, and/or occupational social workers. Some help single parents, arrange adoptions, or help find foster homes for neglected and abused children. In schools, they deal with teenage pregnancy, misconduct, and truancy issues. They guide the teachers when it comes to dealing with problem students. Social workers who focus on helping this segment of the population typically work for individual and family services agencies, schools, or state and local governments.
Working with the Elderly
Other social workers work with senior citizens. They run support groups for families and the adult children of aging parents. They advise elderly people and their families in areas like housing, transportation, and long-term care. There are instances in which adult children can no longer care for a truly ailing parent, and professionals must be called upon. This is where the social workers come in. The fact that most people are busy with jobs and their own children can make it extremely difficult for them also to give ailing parents the care they need. This keeps social workers busy.
In 2006, the first wave of baby boomers turned sixty, including President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton. The children of the 1960s are the senior citizens of tomorrow. They will need care and assistance. Social workers who deal with the elderly will find no shortage of clients in the years ahead.
Medicine and Public Health
Medical and public-health social workers provide the needy with support to cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses, such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and AIDS. They also counsel patients and help them plan at-home services, including things like at-home meal delivery or even hospice care. Medical and public- health social workers work for hospitals, nursing and personal care facilities, individual and family services agencies, and local governments.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Mental-health and substance-abuse social workers treat individuals who have been diagnosed with psychological conditions or who have developed a chemical dependency such as alcoholism or addiction to other drugs. The services these social workers provide include individual and group therapy, crisis intervention, rehabilitation, and training in coping skills. They also help plan for supportive services to make it easier for patients to return to the community, such as working with them in a halfway house. Mental-health and substance-abuse social workers work in hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, individual and family services agencies, and local governments. They are sometimes called clinical social workers.
Planners and Policymakers
Beyond working directly with clients to help them deal with various kinds of life-related issues, social workers also perform the function of planning how such work can best be performed. They also help develop the social and governmental policy that directs and governs such care. These men and women devise programs to address problems like child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and violence. They research and analyze policies, programs, and regulations. They identify social problems and offer solutions. They may help raise funds or write grants to support their programs.
Social Work on the Job
Government social workers usually work a forty-hour week. Some work evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings, and deal with emergencies. They spend most of their time in an office or patient facility, and some travel to visit clients or to attend meetings. Others use several offices within a local area to meet with clients. The work can be emotionally draining. If you decide to become a social worker in the employ of the government, you will find yourself dealing with human suffering on a daily basis. It is important to maintain some perspective and to remember that you cannot save the world. Social workers have many successful clients, but they suffer many casualties as well.
Statistically speaking, even successful social workers “lose” more than they “win” when it comes to their clients. This is not the fault of the worker. In the final analysis, clients must take charge of their recovery, and the social worker is there to facilitate and help. For example, it is estimated that only one out of fifty alcoholics ever goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Out of that group, only one in five is still sober five years later — and AA is regarded as the most successful treatment for alcoholics. It is staffed by volunteers and it is self-supporting, so it does not employ professional social workers.
A bachelor's degree in social work is the common minimum requirement for a job as a social worker. Majors in psychology and sociology may qualify for some entry-level jobs. While a bachelor's degree is sufficient for entry into the field, an advanced degree is the new standard for many jobs. A master's in social work is fast becoming a requirement for most jobs in both government and private agencies.
The Council on Social Work Education accredits 442 programs that award bachelor's degrees in social work and 168 programs that award master's degrees in social work. The Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education lists eighty Ph.D. programs in social work. Bachelor's degree programs prepare graduates for positions such as caseworker, in which the social worker goes out into the field to spend time with clients. These programs include courses in social work values and ethics, dealing with a culturally diverse clientele, recognizing and treating at-risk populations, human behavior, social welfare policy and services, social work practice, social research methods, and field education. Accredited programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience.
Master's degree programs prepare graduates for work in their chosen concentration while continuing to develop the skills required to perform tasks like preparing clinical assessments, managing large caseloads, taking on supervisory roles, and handling other aspects of the job. A typical master's degree program lasts two years and includes a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction or internship. You do not have to have a bachelor's degree in social work to go for a master's degree in the field. Nowadays, a second language — especially Spanish — can be helpful.
It is a sad fact that many people abuse drugs and alcohol. Those who do not make it into treatment on their own or with family help often end up in jail or government-run rehabilitation programs. As a result, social workers with a specialty in drug and alcohol rehabilitation are generally kept busy.
All fifty states and the District of Columbia have their own licensing, certification, and registration requirements regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Most states demand 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience to get a license as a clinical social worker. The National Association of Social Workers offers voluntary credentials. Based on their work experience, social workers with a master's degree can be eligible for the Academy of Certified Social Workers, the Qualified Clinical Social Worker, or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work credential.
Salaries and Employment Outlook
Child, family, and school social workers earn an average salary of $40,620 for local government and $35,070 for state government. Medical and public-health social workers average $39,390, while mental-health and substance-abuse social workers average $35,720. Other social worker specialties average $42,570 working for the local government and $40,940 working for state government.
There are about 562,000 social workers in the United Sates. Nine out of ten are in health-care and social-assistance industries or in state and local government agencies. Most social workers are employed in cities or suburbs, but some work in rural areas.
The rapidly growing elderly population and the aging baby boomer generation are going to create a greater demand for health and social services, resulting in rapid job growth among gerontology social workers — those who specialize in service to the elderly. Social workers with backgrounds in gerontology should be in a good position because of the growing numbers of assisted-living and senior-living communities. This expanding senior population will also increase the demand for social workers in nursing homes, long-term-care facilities, and hospices.
Competition for social worker jobs is greatest in cities, where the demand for services is highest. Opportunities are better in rural areas, where it is often difficult to attract and retain qualified staff. Job prospects are best for social workers with a background in substance- abuse treatment.
There is also expected to be a high demand for substance-abuse social workers over the next ten years. More and more substance abusers are being placed into treatment programs rather than being sent to prison. Demand is going to increase for treatment programs and social workers to help addicts stay clean and sober one day at a time. Many convicts become clean and sober behind bars, with the help of social workers, chaplains, and twelve-step meetings.
Employment in state and local government agencies is expected to grow along with the rising numbers of people on public welfare and of people who require family services or child protective services. However, the availability of federal, state, and local funding will be a major factor in determining the actual job growth.