Social workers empower individuals and communities. Whether working one-on-one with a client going through a family crisis or advocating for policies that help the vulnerable gain access to affordable housing, social workers make a difference. For those considering careers in social work, it’s useful to learn about different job opportunities available in the field.
While social workers with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree may find entry-level positions, social workers with a Master of Social Work (MSW) will find many more career options. Read on to discover a number of MSW job options and paths toward career advancement.
MSW Job Opportunities
On a broad level, social workers can be defined as those who help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In addition, clinical social workers can diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional issues. While duties vary depending on specific roles, generally careers in social work involve:
- Identifying people and communities in need of help
- Assessing clients’ needs from a holistic approach to determine their goals
- Assisting in adjustment periods that clients face, including: illness, divorce or unemployment
- Researching and providing information on community resources, like food stamps, child care and health care, that improve a clients’ well-being, as well as advocating for the existence of these programs to aid in their clients’ lives
- Dealing with crisis situations, such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
- Following up with clients to determine whether their situations have improved, or are improving
- Maintaining records and case files
- Initiating and assessing programs and services to determine whether basic needs are being met
- Providing psychotherapy services
The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts rapid growth in the social work field in the coming years. Between 2020 and 2030, the number of positions available to social workers is projected to increase by 12%. That’s an average of 78,300 job openings in social work each year during the 10-year span.
Child, family and school social workers, as well as health care social workers, are expected to see even more significant increases, with growth projected at 13%. Mental health and substance abuse social worker jobs are projected to grow an impressive 15%.
Along with the overall growth projected for the field, data from social work programs shows significant expansion in the social work educational pipeline. According to a study published by the Council on Social Work Education, enrollment in BSW programs increased 12.6% between 2009 and 2019. Enrollment in MSW programs grew by 34.9% during the same period.This expansion supports the growth of social workers in the workforce.
When considering advanced education options, it’s worth noting that an MSW can impact where social workers find employment, as well as how much they make. Bachelor’s level graduates often find work in the administration of human resource programs, or in individual and family services. Social workers with master’s degrees are more likely to secure work in hospitals, or in elementary and secondary schools.
MSWs had a median annual salary of approximately $56,000 a year according to November 2021 PayScale data, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees in social work had a median salary of about $51,000.
Determining what career path to follow in the field of social work is dependent on many factors — like what setting someone sees themselves working best in, what they are most passionate about and where they live.
Macro Social Work
Macro social work can be seen as a tent, consisting of administration, community organizing and analysis, so it encapsulates several fields. Micro social work consists of the hands-on work that social workers do — which is direct work with clients, as opposed to more administrative or program development roles. Macro social work can be seen as everything from community organizing to coalition building and political engagement. Macro social work focuses on activities social workers engage in to improve policies. It is important to note that macro social work is the basis of the field, considering Jane Addams’s work and the settlement house movement. The founding of Hull House—Chicago’s first social settlement offering housing, education, and community to diverse communities—was an act of macro social work.
While social justice has always been an integral part of social work, there’s an increase in the number of people entering social work to work at a political level. Macro-level social work is vital for addressing the systemic barriers that impact work with clients’ on a daily basis, when roadblocks in the system prevent clients from moving forward in a treatment plan.
Macro social work offers several MSW career options. The following list includes six potential MSW jobs, some of which focus on macro social work.
1: Community Organizer
Community organizers, also known as social and community service managers, work with community members and stakeholders to identify necessary programs and services. Typically, they work for specific social or human service organizations that focus on a certain demographic, such as children or veterans. Their organizations may also focus on helping people with particular challenges, such as substance abuse or long-term unemployment.
Community organizers may plan and manage outreach activities to advocate for program awareness and write proposals for funding. Community organizers may also be responsible for supervising staff, including social workers. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for social and community service managers was $69,600 as of 2020.
2: Legislative Aide
A legislative aide or assistant assists legislators in carrying out their duties by helping with research, administration and communications. They receive assignments focused on specific policy areas, such as education, the environment or taxes. Legislative aides had a median annual salary of approximately $46,000 according to PayScale data as of July 2021. Some earn as much as $67,000 a year, depending on their education and experience.
For macro-level jobs, many opportunities may be found within political campaigns and at nonprofits with a focus on social justice.
3: Child and Family Social Worker
When most people think of social workers, the child and family specialization is typically what comes to mind. This work involves direct services to individuals and families in various settings. Child and family social workers provide a safety net for those experiencing socioeconomic challenges. They also advocate for children and families in need.
Social workers in this field work in child welfare agencies, community youth programs, shelters or other nonclinical settings, and their primary focus is to ensure that children and families are being cared for and that their basic needs are being met. The main goal is for families to become self-sufficient, and social workers assist their clients in facing issues that are preventing this. The reasons vary, including substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment and trauma.
Child and family social workers can assist with these issues through basic counseling, environmental assessments, referrals, working with community partners, case management, advocacy, ongoing monitoring and, when necessary, out-of-home placement and adoption. Child welfare social workers find successes with their clients greatly rewarding.
Child abuse is recognized as a pervasive problem in America, explaining why this field is a draw for many social workers and why it is in growing demand. A report released at the beginning of 2020 by the Children’s Bureau found that 1,770 children died from abuse or neglect in 2018. The report also found that, within a year, child protective services agencies receive over 4 million child abuse referrals involving almost 8 million children.
Child and family social workers had a median annual salary of $48,430 in 2020 according to the BLS.
4: Hospital/Health Care Social Worker
A hospitalization, illness or injury is a huge stressor. Clinical social workers at hospitals and health care centers provide patients and families with psychosocial services to help them cope with the challenges they face in the health care process.
Hospital social workers are responsible for helping patients understand a particular illness and work through their diagnosis, and they provide counseling on decisions that have to be made. Social workers in hospitals are also important members of a health care team, providing doctors, nurses and allied health care professionals with tools to understand the emotional and social aspects of a patient’s illness. Case management skills are applied to help patients work through social, psychological and financial problems associated with their illnesses or injuries.
An overview of what hospital social workers may perform includes:
- Initial screening and evaluation of patients
- Psychosocial assessment of patients
- Providing patients and their families with further aid when it comes to understanding treatment options as well as the consequences of certain treatments or refusal of treatment
- Employing crisis intervention, if necessary
- Diagnosing underlying mental illnesses and either providing psychotherapy or making referrals for individual, group or family therapy depending on the situation
- Encouraging communication and collaboration with health care team members
- Arranging resources to provide financial assist for medications, medical equipment and other services required
- Working with patients and their families through various settings of the process, including inpatient, outpatient, home and in the community
- Advocating for the rights of patients at the policy level
According to the BLS, , health care social workers had a median annual salary of $57,630 in 2020. This field attracts individuals who enjoy fast-paced environments as well as those with an interest in the medical field and cutting-edge medical interventions. Working as a social worker in a hospital provides a team-like environment as they work with health care teams to advocate for patients.
5: Mental Health Social Worker (Clinics and Outpatient)
Social workers who work in mental health clinics have an important role in determining and treating mental health issues. Clinics can be funded by private or public funding, and services provided in these clinics are determined in terms of intensity and duration. Social workers who provide mental health services are required to be licensed by the state they work in, so individuals should keep this in mind when determining if they want to pursue careers in this particular field. Social workers within these clinics often work as part of a team, so this may appeal to those who like to work collaboratively.
A wide variety of issues are addressed by social workers at mental health clinics and outpatient facilities, including those brought on from the stresses of everyday living; crises initiated by emotional, environmental or situational circumstances; eating disorders; marital problems; problems between parents and children; depression; schizophrenia; bipolar disorder; and other psychological conditions.
Roles and job titles vary at mental health clinics, including clinical social worker, licensed clinical social worker, therapist, clinician, case manager and director, meaning particular job functions of social workers vary. However, the following are a few examples of what to expect:
- Determining client eligibility for services
- Assessing clients for substance use, support systems, physical and emotional functioning, financial stability, suicidal idealization and various other factors
- Developing and implementing treatment plans
- Promoting mental health services within the clinic to the greater community
- Grant writing and evaluation to determine and maintain funding
- Managing, training and supervising staff
- Working as a part of multidisciplinary treatment team
Social workers providing therapy are typically expected to have a master’s degree, which makes those graduating from MSW programs ideal candidates. According to the BLS, the median pay for mental health social workers was $48,720 in May 2020.
6: Social Worker in School
Social workers in schools can be found working in elementary, middle and high schools, meaning they have a wide scope of issues to potentially face depending on the age range of the students they work with. They play a critical role in school systems, provide services to students that allow them to improve their emotional well-being and work to find underlying reasons for academic struggles.
School social workers help students, families and teachers in dealing with an array of problems that arise in a school setting, like social withdrawal or aggression. They also work with the effects of physical, emotional or economic problems that may be impacting a student’s life and their ability to perform in school. While qualifications vary for social workers in schools depending on the state and district, a clinical license may be required. Below is a general overview of what a role as a school social worker may entail:
- Conducting biopsychosocial assessments and social histories
- Assessing students for substance abuse, support systems, barriers to academic performance, peer issues and suicidal ideation
- Providing direct therapeutic services for various issues, for individuals, groups and families
- Providing crisis management services
- Providing case management services, like referrals to community services and collaboration with other professionals
- Providing training and workshops to other staff, including teachers and parents
- Contributing to a multidisciplinary treatment team
- Conducting home visits
Success in this role is reliant on the ability to collaborate with and work effectively on a team. As mentioned above, if they are performing therapy and providing mental health services, social workers must be licensed in their state. Social workers in a school setting make a big impact on the students they serve. Their roles vary from student to student, providing an unpredictable day-to-day experience. The median salary for social workers with an MSW working in schools was $48,430 in 2020 according to the BLS.
Drive Societal Change with an MSW
Possessing an MSW degree opens up doors to many careers in social work and increases the chances of higher pay. With the right education, aspiring social workers can explore a range of MSW job options from nonprofit work to communitey action.
Learn more about how the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Social Work program prepares graduates for a broad, diverse scope of challenges in the workforce.