Alternative Careers for Social Workers Outside the Traditional Work Setting

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Mental health counselor discusses treatment plan

Are you passionate about improving the lives of people in underserved communities? Do you feel systematic reform is needed to create a more socially just and equitable society? If so, pursuing a career in the social work field can allow you to advocate for real change at the local, state and national levels. Whether you’re looking for a hands-on counselling role or an administrative position focused on community outreach, there are plenty of social work jobs to choose from.

Even if you’re not interested in becoming a clinical social worker or working in social services, your education and experience are highly valuable to organizations across industry lines. Before settling on a career path, it may be useful to explore alternative careers for social workers that fall outside traditional settings. But before we dive into specific employment options, let’s quickly recap what makes social work such a dynamic field of study.

What are the advantages of becoming a social worker?

Social work jobs offer students and mid-career professionals the opportunity to help people from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds overcome obstacles in their lives, from mental health issues to substance abuse and beyond. As noted by the National Association of Social Workers, the primary goal of this career field is to “enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” Using their clinical knowledge, interpersonal skills and compassion, social workers seek to enrich the lives of individuals and communities through policy crafting, public outreach, therapy and other direct services.

While social work degrees typically prepare students for traditional roles, what they learn can be applied in a variety of professional contexts. Additionally, the experience social work practitioners gain in the field can be adapted to different career paths later in life. Case managers can use their organization, communication and management skills to streamline the rollout of new employee assistance programs in for-profit companies. Clinical social workers can leverage their counselling expertise to mentor students with behavioral problems or former inmates trying to rejoin society. And social policy analysts can utilize their critical thinking and writing experience to create educational resources that inform the public about social services and programs. In all of these examples, social workers are able to easily pivot to new career paths thanks to their diverse educational and professional backgrounds. But which alternative careers for social workers should aspiring students consider?

Alternative careers for social workers

The social work field is diverse: Many occupations don’t fit neatly into the social work paradigm, yet the associated work duties often have a high degree of overlap. Whether you’re just starting out or looking to expand your career in social work, it’s important to carefully review your options and obtain the right qualifications to excel in non-traditional roles. Pursuing a Master’s in Social Work can provide the real-world expertise and experience social work graduates need to chart their own career paths, no matter where their interests may take them. Below are just a few alternative careers for social workers that may align with your personal and professional goals:

Health educator

Health educators fill a critical role within the social work field and broader health care system by teaching people how to live happier, healthier lives. Clinical social workers are especially well-suited to this profession, as their backgrounds in mental health and direct counselling can help them understand the complex needs of individuals and communities. Working as a health educator typically involves developing strategies to improve the wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in modern society, often through educational programs, informative content and community outreach. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professionals in this role may have some combination of the following work duties:

  • Evaluating the health needs of individuals, families and communities
  • Organizing programs, resources and events to educate people about health topics
  • Teaching people how to manage chronic illnesses and health conditions
  • Helping individuals locate and make use of social services in their area
  • Overseeing training programs for community health specialists and social workers

Health educators can choose to work directly with vulnerable populations or take hands-off roles creating new learning materials around trending health topics. In terms of job outlook, the BLS expects employment of health educators will grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the national average for all occupations. The median salary for health educators stood at $55,220 in May 2019, though professionals working at local, state and private hospitals earned upwards of $64,680.

Probation officer

Many social work graduates are passionate about reforming the criminal justice system to help eliminate racial inequalities, improve inmate rehabilitation and end mass incarceration. While there are social policy analyst jobs that focus on the big picture, a social worker can make notable strides at the individual level by becoming a correctional treatment specialist. Adjacent to this role is that of a probation officer, which is more focused on reintegrating inmates into society through hands-on therapy, group interventions and occupational counseling. As noted by the BLS, probation officers typically have the following responsibilities:

  • Conducting interviews with probationers and parolees to assess their progress
  • Developing detailed rehabilitation plans for former inmates
  • Providing probationers with job training, life skills and other support services
  • Testing individuals for drugs and coordinating substance abuse counseling
  • Writing detailed reports and acting as case managers for multiple clients

Like other types of social workers, probation officers channel their compassion and interpersonal skills to help people make positive physical, mental and behavior changes. Between 2018 and 2028, the employment of probation officers is expected to expand by 3%, according to data from the BLS – fairly below average U.S. occupational growth. That said, employment growth for this profession largely depends on state and local funding, so some regions of the U.S. may have a better outlook than others. Probation officers had a median salary of $54,290 in May 2019, with the highest 10% of earners taking home around $94,860.

Mental health counselor

Mental health counselors are in high demand across government, public and private institutions thanks to their dynamic skill sets and professional qualifications. Child and school social workers often have considerable experience mentoring students who struggle with mental health issues and substance abuse, which can be applied to a wide range of counselling and therapy occupations. The same is true for clinical social workers, as their credentials help ensure they’re up to date with the latest mental health research and intervention strategies. According to the BLS, mental health counselors may be responsible for the following work duties:

  • Assessing clients’ mental, physical and emotional health to identify problematic behaviors
  • Developing treatment goals, strategies and plans to improve clients’ overall well-being
  • Helping individuals overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges
  • Educating clients’ family members about addiction, mental illnesses and behavior disorders
  • Referring clients to social services, including job programs and support groups

Depending on the specific role, mental health counselors may also conduct community outreach to better understand the impact of substance abuse and other behavioral problems at the macro level. According to the BLS, demand for mental health counselors is projected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028, due in part to recognition within some segments of the criminal justice system that substance abuse treatment is more effective than incarceration. In May 2019, the median salary for mental health counselors was $46,240, per data from the BLS, though higher-level professionals earned around $76,080.

Human resources coordinator

While many people might not equate social work practice with the business activities of for-profit companies, there is actually quite a bit of overlap. Human resource coordinators, for example, use their communication and interpersonal skills to resolve employee relations problems and advocate for meaningful employee assistance programs. Social work case managers tend to excel in these types of HR roles, as they often have considerable experience holding difficult conversations, maintaining detailed records and supporting people who have behavioral issues. As noted by the BLS, the job duties of human resource coordinators may entail:

  • Speaking with employees about interpersonal issues, sexual abuse and discriminatory practices
  • Interviewing job applicants and creating detailed onboarding and training processes
  • Contacting job references and running background checks on pending candidates
  • Maintaining employment records and paperwork about ongoing behavioral issues
  • Helping employees understand their compensation and benefits

As an alternative career for social workers, the role of a human resources coordinator is often a stepping stone to higher-level positions, such as a human resources manager or labor relations specialist. Employment of human resources coordinators is expected to grow by 5% between 2018 and 2028, which is about as fast as the national average for all occupations. The median wage for this profession stood at $61,920 in May 2019, with those in scientific and technical service industries earning $70,180 on average.

How an online MSW can help you pursue alternative careers for social workers

The online Master of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno is designed to prepare students for a variety of general and specialized career paths in the social work field. This unique social work degree is one of a handful of programs that is structured around advanced generalist practice, allowing you to chart your own course and easily pivot to alternative careers for social workers. No matter what non-traditional occupation you’re interested in, the online MSW can provide the knowledge and real-world experience you need to effectively collaborate with professionals from diverse backgrounds, including business, public health, medicine and psychology.

To learn more, explore the MSW degree page or contact an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended Reading:

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Social Work?

Social Worker Jobs: Skills and Careers in this Crucial Field

8 Essential Social Work Skills and Traits


Online Master of Social Work

Why Choose the Social Work Profession? by the National Association of Social Workers

Health Educators and Community Health Workers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Human Resources Specialists by the Bureau of Labor Statistics