According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for social workers is predicted to increase by 12% nationwide by 2024—faster than the average for all other occupations.
A career in social work offers a wide variety of specialties, client populations, and work settings. Licensed social workers—those with a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and the required licensure or certification in their state—have even more career opportunities and higher salaries.
Here’s a look at the social work field and five potential career paths with an MSW.
The Field of Social Work
Social work professionals help people function in their environment by assessing their psychological needs and advocating for them. They may find themselves helping individuals from all backgrounds battle challenges such as poverty, discrimination, abuse, addiction, physical or mental illness, loss, unemployment, educational problems, or disabilities.
Social workers must be highly-trained with knowledge of human development and behavior, and the social, economic, and cultural factors that affect how we live. In-demand skills for social work professionals include the ability to effectively communicate verbally and in writing, multi-task, and sit in ambiguity—in the social work environment, not everything is cut and dried.
Social workers who are interested in counseling, diagnosing, or implementing treatment plans must have an MSW, and in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, a professional license. Licensure is often required in order to work with clients and ensure you are meeting professional standards and practice legally.
5 Career Paths with an MSW
While the social work field offers a variety of career options and focus areas, some of the more common paths include:
1. Working with the Elderly. As the Baby Boom generation ages, the need for social workers in geriatric-related venues increases, including in nursing homes, hospitals, hospice, and home health. Social workers within these settings will help the elderly and their caregivers cope with old age, financial matters, medical care, mental health issues, or social problems.
Career opportunities may include geriatric social worker, social and human service assistant, and mental health social worker.
2. Working with Children and Families. Social workers serve families and children in the areas of child protection, adoption and foster care, residential treatment, addictions, juvenile corrections, homelessness, working-poor, food insecurity, domestic violence, school social work, and counseling.
Career opportunities may include school social worker, adolescent specialist, children’s social worker, foster care therapist, and family advocacy representative.
3. Working with At-Risk Populations. Social workers can help at-risk populations through specialties in homelessness, domestic violence, sex trafficking, immigration issues, low-income, individuals with disease, abused children and families, active and veteran military members and families, crisis stabilization, and more.
The social service needs of U.S. communities change over time—homelessness is one example. Twenty years ago the typical homeless person was a single, adult man with addictions; however, the recession in 2009 changed that. Now the average age of a homeless person is nine (depending on the community), which means the social work role has shifted to meet the needs of the younger, homeless population.
Career opportunities may include veterans affairs field officer, HIV mental health coordinator, community rehabilitation worker, and addictions worker.
4. Counseling in Private Practice. Licensed social workers who choose to counsel in a private practice have the option of working solo or in a group practice. Private practice services can also extend beyond the office to settings such as primary care, schools, hospitals, or nursing facilities.
Independent social workers may also contract with organizations to provide employee assistance services. Working in a private practice can provide flexibility in schedules, control of the work environment, and the ability to work independently.
Career opportunities may include family therapist, crisis intervention specialist, and child and youth worker, and offered through an independent practice setting.
5. Working in Advocacy and Policy Change. In addition to direct social service, advocacy and leading community change are other key roles for social workers today. Social workers have the opportunity to see first-hand the difficulties their clients are facing, which provides them with the knowledge and experience to help influence policy on every social issue, from immigration and health to mental health care funding and education. There are opportunities for social change and action in all communities, and MSWs are often at the forefront.
Career opportunities may include social policy analyst, case manager, grant writer, researcher, and local or national agency director.
Learn more about Capella’s CSWE accredited Master of Social Work degree program.