In 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point in the year, meaning that they didn’t have adequate access to healthy food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that according to 2017 data, the percentage of those aged 12 and older who used illicit drugs in the past month was 11.2%. And the World Health Organization (WHO) states that more than 264 million people each year are afflicted by depression.
Food insecurity, drug use and depression are all complex and challenging societal issues. They are all also areas in which social workers and social work professionals seek to make a positive impact and meaningful change. By working with populations impacted by these conditions as well as with organizations that help improve these issues, social workers help individuals afflicted by certain societal conditions. They are able to do this through their deep knowledge of social issues and expansive professional skill sets.
All social workers and social work professionals have the ability to create and foster meaningful improvements in people’s lives. For those who want to be part of this rewarding field, the question isn’t so much if they’ll have the ability to make meaningful change, but which type of social worker job is best suited for them.
Social Work Skills and Knowledge
Regardless of the specific field they work in, the service they provide or the type of population they work with, social work professionals have a strong general understanding of larger societal trends and issues that are impacting individuals across the country and the world. Here are some of the issues that social workers typically tackle.
- Food insecurity: Social work professionals can help those who are unable to afford nutritious food, do not live in an area where nutritious food is readily available or do not have the necessary means to access said food.
- Mental health concerns: Therapy, counseling and other services can be provided to those who are afflicted by mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and particular types of phobias.
- Racism and inequality: Social workers can raise awareness about the harms of racism and intolerance toward or among certain populations. They can also work with individuals whose lives are impacted by inequality in some way, such as lack of equal job opportunity or discrepancies in pay among members of certain genders and ethnic groups.
- Poverty: Social workers can work with individuals who are living below the poverty line in efforts to give them adequate access to food, shelter, employment opportunities and other items that are necessary to sustain a fulfilling life.
Specialized social work professionals typically have a deep knowledge of one of the social issues mentioned above. They are also cognizant of the necessary techniques, tools and strategies to help those afflicted by these situations. For example, a mental health social worker may employ a different set of training and work with populations that are completely different from a social worker who focuses on food insecurity. Depending on their specialty, social workers may need to obtain deeper education such as a master’s in social work (MSW), or certifications to work with a particular population, such as a certificate in gerontology to treat aging populations.
However, the array of social worker roles are generally similar in that they combine both hard and soft skills. Hard skills refer to items that are more technical, complex and require specific training. This includes understanding particular therapeutic techniques when working with patients or particular research methods when conducting and analyzing surveys. Soft skills refer to more interpersonal abilities and proficiencies. These may include understanding how to communicate and evoke empathy when conducting particular therapy, or understanding how to be organized, collaborative and well-spoken when delivering the results of a survey or study.
Social Work Salary and Career Growth
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for social workers in 2018 was $49,470. For counselors, social workers and “other community and social service specialists,” the median salary was $44,960.
Further information from Payscale shows how salary ranges for different types of social worker positions can vary. For example, the median mental health counselor salary was $41,571, while the median hourly pay for a substance abuse counselor was $17.18.
Salaries can also vary depending on skill and experience level. Payscale notes that the median salary for a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with psychiatric skills was $60,988, with individuals who have more experience in the field tending to earn more.
Compared to other professions that often require advanced degrees and certifications, the salary for social work jobs can seem low. Investopedia remarks how “social workers are the unappreciated heroes of society. Name the lower rung of society — think of your tired, your poor, your hungry, your physically and emotionally abused and disabled — and social workers are there trying to help them keep their grip on the ladder.” Aspiring professionals who gravitate toward the field of social work often don’t do so because of salary expectations, but because the work itself is meaningful and rewarding.
However, there is strong job growth projected for social workers. The BLS notes that overall employment is expected to grow 11% through 2028, and that “increased demand for health care and social services will drive demand for social workers, but growth will vary by specialization.” For example, the projected growth for social workers who specialize in health care is 17% through 2028, which can likely be attributed to the growing need of those health services described earlier.
For substance abuse and mental health social workers, the projected growth is 18%, which could be attributed to the rising number of people who face health issues related to addiction and drug use.
The growth for child, family and school social workers is projected to be 7%, with the BLS stating “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.”
At the same time, this does not mean that employment is always guaranteed. A school district that is facing a budgetary crisis could eliminate social worker positions from its schools. A mental health services or addiction/rehabilitation clinic may lose funding, or social workers who work for government entities may find their positions no longer available after new budgetary adjustments.
This is why it can be beneficial to earn an advanced degree such as a master’s in social work (MSW) as well as specific credentials such as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). For example, an LCSW certification helps establish a social work professional as able to provide certain mental health services.
In general, the employment prospects look strong for social work professionals throughout this decade. The growth and complexity of certain social issues has created a need for dedicated professionals to help address those who are afflicted.
Children and Families Social Work
One of the populations that greatly benefits from the services of social workers is that of children and families. In this field, social workers work with those who may face a wide range of social issues within their households, such as household poverty, abuse by family members and food insecurity.
A children and families social worker might help to improve the mental health of a child who is experiencing or indicating distress. They can help mitigate conflicts and develop solutions in situations where abuse is being experienced by one or more family members. Their primary goal however, is helping maintain and improve the mental health and livelihood of children and families.
These social workers can work in different professional settings, which may also impact their day-to-day responsibilities. A child and families social worker who works for a government organization may focus on working with clients from a particular city or focus on providing a specialized service. Those who work in a school may focus more intimately on the experiences of students within their homes and in the larger classroom. The BLS notes that these professionals “may assist parents, arrange adoptions and find foster homes for abandoned or abused children. In schools, they address such problems as teenage pregnancy, misbehavior and truancy. They may also advise teachers.”
Child and family social workers use strategies such as intervention, treatment and social programs to help those afflicted by certain issues. A social worker within a school may receive a report from a teacher that a student’s behavior has become erratic. That social work professional may meet with the student and determine if they are the victim of wrongdoing or abuse, or if they may be facing a different physical or mental health concern. The social worker could then provide direct treatment or refer the child to a specialized health practitioner.
A social worker on a larger policy level may also help develop programs that can assist that child. For example, if a social worker determines a child is performing poorly in school due to inadequate access to healthy foods, that child may benefit from nutritional programs that were developed by the social worker.
Mental Health Social Worker
Mental health social workers are dedicated to helping maintain and improve the mental health of different groups and populations. This type of social worker may work one-on-one in their own private practice with individuals young and old. They may also work for a larger health or government organization such as a veterans hospital to evaluate mental health concerns of certain patients.
There are various mental health conditions and ailments that social workers can help alleviate.
Trauma: Helping individuals who have experienced trauma and developing strategies with said persons so they can move past the traumatic event. Populations who have experienced trauma may include veterans, abuse victims and those who have dealt with personal loss.
Addiction: Helping individuals who may be addicted to a particular substance such as alcohol or narcotics, or exhibit some type of addictive behavior that is negatively impacting their lives.
Eating disorders: Helping individuals who are facing body image and nutritional issues that are impacting both their physical and mental health.
Mental health social workers know there is not necessarily a magic cure-all for the mental health issues experienced by those they treat. For example, someone who is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, may have more severe and debilitating symptoms than another person who has experienced similar trauma. This is why social workers need to be diligent, empathetic and attentive when working with those who have mental health concerns.
Some mental health social workers, such as substance and abuse counselors, may dedicate themselves to working with those afflicted by a particular mental health issue. Others may work with populations that are frequently impacted by mental health concerns, such as veterans or those who are aging (gerontology).
Mental health social workers may also often work with other mental health professionals in providing treatment for a particular individual. For example, a person who has been hospitalized after surviving a traumatic fire may have their physical wounds and injuries treated by a physician. That same patient may also speak with a mental health social worker to address potential trauma and other mental health concerns as a result of the event.
Social workers who are aspiring to work in the mental health area must have a firm understanding of particular mental health conditions, how they may impact populations differently and what can be done to help improve the afflicted. With this knowledge and skill set in place, mental health social workers can make a positive difference on individuals.
What Can You Do With a Masters in Social Work?
Every social work position has its own unique responsibilities, provides its own services and works with certain populations. But a commonality that exists among all social worker roles is that they often require a master’s in social work (MSW).
This degree is more than a necessary means of certification. MSW programs provide a combination of macro and micro social worker skills that includes an understanding of the following.
- Developing effective public policies and programs to help those afflicted by social issues
- Research methodologies to help effectively evaluate social work issues
- Data and analysis techniques to interpret the results of research and other findings
- Counseling strategies, methodologies and best practices
- Approaches to helping those impacted by various social issues
Individuals who hold an advanced degree also have the ability to earn a higher salary and qualify for more competitive jobs. According to Payscale, the median salary for an MSW social worker is $47,102 compared to $40,026 for those who hold a BSW. As a professional advances within their career, an MSW can open opportunities to more prestigious and higher-ranking positions, such as the director of a social advocacy program or a professor or academic in a university’s social work program.
What makes social work such a challenging and rewarding field is that social issues themselves are constantly evolving and becoming more complex. Despite the awareness of the harms of food deserts, this has not stopped them from expanding across the country. The harm of substance abuse and addiction is well documented, but there are still millions of individuals whose lives are impacted daily. And it is hard to interpret just how many individuals suffer from often undiagnosed mental health afflictions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is why social workers are needed now — and will be needed in the future. They are professionals who can help those who are immediately impacted by social issues and develop solutions that improve lives. They can use their detailed understanding of complex social issues to develop programs that drastically improve neighborhoods, cities and communities.
The field is a challenging one, but an MSW degree is a valuable step for individuals who are called to make a positive difference.