Social Worker Career Benefits Guide - 2022

Last Reviewed: August 29th, 2022

There’s little question that deciding on a college major and a career is critical to your future. After all, while you can change careers a few times during your life, chances are that you’ll only get one college degree. 

Part of the decision making process for most people should be career prospects, both in terms of the ability to get and keep a job, and in terms of the benefits. Potential social workers in particular tend to have a sense of social responsibility and a desire to get a job that makes a difference. However, everyone needs to look out for their economic wellbeing. And at the same time, they should be certain that social work is a job they’ll find fulfilling.

That’s why we’ve prepared this benefits guide. There are a lot of sources about the job satisfaction of social workers, but fewer talk about economic career benefits you’ll get from an employer or other lifestyle considerations. With that in mind, let’s look at the possibilities.

Job stability, flexibility, and opportunities for advancement

Most people who consider a social work career want to help people and make a difference in their communities. This is true whether they want to work in child protection, help people get public benefits, ease people through transitions, or anything else. Unfortunately, some social work specialties have very high turnover rates due to mountains of paperwork and administrative tasks.

While governments are doing a lot to reduce the attrition rate in social services, there are many other opportunities available. For instance, you can work in a school or medical facility where the stress levels are often lower. However, the discussion overall is whether you can get a good job as a social worker, if you have flexibility in the field, and if you can advance in your career.

We argue that the answer is yes. Let’s look at the reasons why.

Social worker demand is growing

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth is expected to grow 5.5% from 2018 to 2028. This is faster than the national average for all professions, and means that you have a high chance of getting a job. And as we pointed out, people change jobs regularly in social work, so there are usually opportunities to pursue. Even if you can’t get your first choice of employer type, you’ll still have a friendly job market. 

Social work is a flexible career

As the NASW is quick to point out, there’s a lot of variety within the social work profession. This is true even within many of the social work specialties. In addition, you can always change specialties by completing additional education or training.

Let’s break this down a bit. Let’s say that you’re passionate about helping people who are facing catastrophic illnesses. People in this stage of their lives may need a lot of support, such as home health aides, assistance with adapting their homes for a wheelchair, or even respite for caregivers. As a social worker, you could help connect people with appropriate resources to live their best lives possible. That might include a grant for home modifications, blind citizen services, or help paying for medications.

You could help these seriously ill clients and their families in a few different work environments. For instance, most hospitals have a social worker on staff (or several) who help people ease the transition from the hospital to home or a nursing facility. Or, you might work for a state or county-level agency that helps aging or disabled adults. And finally, a lot of home health agencies will have a social worker who can help coordinate auxiliary services.

This level of variety is available in other specialties, too. Someone who wants to work with kids could seek employment with public or private foster care and child welfare agencies. Or, a school social worker job might be appropriate. In other words, there are many opportunities for social workers within most specialties. 

Social work has opportunities for advancement

Lastly, social workers have opportunities for career advancement.  You can start out as a case worker or other base-level professional. Then, after you gain experience you can become a more senior social worker. Many public agencies, for instance, have levels of social worker based on experience. Your pay generally rises as your rank increases.

Another way to advance is by getting a master’s or doctoral degree. Arguably the two most common reasons to do this are to become a therapist (LCSW, similar credentials) or an administrator/supervisor. Then, you can get a doctorate for especially high-ranked positions.

Flex time and part time

Because social work is such a flexible field, there’s a good chance you can find a part time social work job. For instance, you might get a per diem position at a hospital arranging home health and other supports for a patient who’s going to be discharged. Or, a school board might need a relief or part time social worker to fill in on certain schedules. And finally, many agencies need people who can work odd hours, or at least are able to accommodate when you need to do paperwork after hours to take a child to the doctor.

Employee benefits

As a social worker, you’ll get more than just a salary. Most agencies and other employers that hire social workers have benefits for their full time employees. These include the basics, like insurance, time off and retirement. You’ll also get opportunities for professional development and potential student loan forgiveness.

Insurance

Many social work employers will provide a comprehensive set of insurance benefits. For instance, your employer is required by law to provide worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance. However, this isn’t all you can get as a social worker. The typical employer will provide:

  • Health insurance: State agencies in particular are famous for their generous employee benefits, including medical. Some states even give you medical insurance before 90 days are up. If you’re self employed or your employer doesn’t grant these benefits, you have options through the NASW.
  • Dental and vision insurance: These are usually add-ons for your general medical insurance. However, most major social work employers will offer them at a reasonable cost.
  • Disability and life insurance: Usually voluntary, but some employers like state governments give them to you automatically. Either way, they’re a great way to protect yourself and your family.

Time off

Social work employers know that this is a stressful, yet rewarding, job. To that end, you’ll usually get a couple of weeks minimum of time off. For state employees, there’s typically sick and personal leave. Also, almost everyone has designated days off, such as New Year’s and Independence Day.

Professional development and tuition reimbursement

Social workers must do continuing education courses to keep their license. This lets them keep up with current trends, new laws, and gives a chance for upskilling. Many, if not most, social work employers will pay for at least some of this expense. Some will even help with the cost of a master’s or doctoral degree. For social workers who aren’t that lucky, the NASW has inexpensive CEU’s to help you keep a license.

Student loan forgiveness

Finally, there’s a potential for student loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. You can find a link to this program on the Department of Education website. In brief, this program provides for loan forgiveness after 120 “qualifying payments” while working for a government or nonprofit employer. Because the bulk of social worker employers fall under these categories, this is a real opportunity for social workers.

Specialty-specific job benefits

As we’ve already pointed out, social work jobs tend to have plenty of benefits. However, it’s also a very wide occupation with lots of variety. Because of this, it’s important to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each option. In a way, the advantages of each specialty is a sort of job benefit: most social workers get “paid” through job satisfaction on top of their salary.

It almost goes without saying, but we want you to be happy in your chosen role! To that end, let’s look at some reasons why you might choose a particular specialty. Hopefully, this will help you pick the right opportunities.

Administration and Supervision

First, let’s look at an administrative or supervisory role. These professionals are senior social workers who have many years of experience. Typically, they’ll also have their MSW or higher, and several credentials. 

There are two groups in this specialty. The administrators will run a department or social work agency. So, you might have the director of your local Child Welfare agency, or the leader of a group counseling practice in mental health.

Then, there are the supervisors. These can be direct reports of an administrator, sort of like the first-level manager. However, their main claim to fame is serving as the social worker that helps new social workers finish their training. For instance, they’ll supervise your practicum or clinical hours. Other supervisors will help a social worker who is learning a new specialty, or who has been referred to supervision for other reasons.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of being a supervisor or administrator:

  • Administrators do a lot of paperwork, mostly for fundraising and regulatory purposes. They may also do the HR tasks.
  • Advocacy work is part of being an administrator.
  • Both administrators and supervisors help train new social workers and upskill existing ones.
  • Administrators and supervisors alike have one or more subspecialties, like child welfare or gerontology, that match their agency.
  • Mentorship is part of the job.
  • You’ll need a master’s or doctoral degree.

This specialty isn’t entry-level and generally requires further education. However, if you love being a mentor and a public advocate for your agency’s type of clients, then you’ll probably love it. But if you can’t get past the idea of extra paperwork, or firing someone, then you may want to skip it.

Aging/gerontology

This specialty of social work helps older citizens stay in their homes, move to a nursing home, or otherwise deal with life’s transitions. They’ll also help friends and family support their aging loved one. For instance, if family is taking care of this person in their home, a social worker can organize respite care. 

Likewise, gerontology social workers might work in a retirement home or assisted living facility to help residents with transitions or relationships with family. A gerontology social worker might also work at a state agency for older citizens. Often, these agencies have a goal of keeping people in their homes longer. Finally, some clinical social workers specialize in counseling senior citizens.

This social work specialty has some benefits and drawbacks:

  • You’ll often work with people who are very sick, or who are distressed about age-related disability.
  • Families may be more cooperative if they want the help, and less so if they see you as an intruder.
  • This specialty is more likely to work for a non-public agency, which generally have fewer benefits.
  • Seeing someone who’s grateful for the help, and living their best life possible, can be extremely satisfying.
  • You can typically start with a bachelor’s degree.

As you can see, this specialty is great for people who like older people, and who enjoy seeing them live their best life. On the other hand, families and even the client can be hostile, so you’ll need a thick skin.

Substance abuse and mental health

People work with substance abuse and mental health social workers because they need help getting clean and sober, or dealing with their mental health. Sometimes, you’ll see people who suffer from both addiction and mental illness. This is also a relatively varied specialty, because you might work with clients of any age, income level, and background. 

With that in mind, what are the pros and cons?

  • The opportunity to work for yourself: A lot of social workers in this specialty have a solo counseling practice. Or, they might work with a small group of social workers in private practice. This gives a level of flexibility you can’t get anywhere else, but it also means you have to pay for all of your benefits and insurance.
  • Many jobs are in small facilities: In particular, drug and alcohol rehab facilities tend to be fairly small. This gives you an opportunity to work with a few people at a time, and to really make a difference for them. 
  • Large employers are also an option: you might do counseling for a larger employer like a hospital. However, your unit will usually be smaller.
  • Some working environments have hostile clients: Many people enter the mental health or substance abuse treatment system through a court order or after a family intervention. They may not want to be there and might resist. Similarly, these clients can be unpredictable.
  • You can make a huge difference for this population: Often, people who suffer from substance abuse need a helping hand to get better. And they’re grateful for your help getting off of whatever substance they’re addicted to.
  • Seeing people go into remission is very rewarding: It doesn’t matter if you do substance abuse, mental health, or both. People can and do get better. Seeing someone get their life back together or return to mental wellness is worth it.

Working in mental health and substance abuse is hugely rewarding, especially if your clients want the help. However, it can also be dangerous if you have hostile or unpredictable clients. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon in mental health disciplines generally.

Child welfare

When most of us think about the term “social worker,” this is often what comes to mind first. It’s also controversial because a lot of people have negative views of child protection agencies. In child welfare, you’ll reach out to families and the community to prevent child abuse and neglect. You’ll also intervene when abuse or neglect happen. Here, the goal is to preserve the family whenever possible. However, it doesn’t always work out that way, so child welfare workers often have to find a new family for children.

Here are the benefits and drawbacks:

  • You help create a safe society for children to grow up in. This helps prevent a lot of problems for the child later on, like violence and mental health problems, or run-ins with the criminal or juvenile justice systems.
  • Children are often grateful for your help: After all, they get a safe space. And hopefully, their parents back better than ever.
  • Watching a child go from threatened to secure can be very satisfying.
  • Parents and other family members are often hostile or uncooperative.
  • You’ll spend a lot of time doing paperwork and attending court hearings.
  • High burn out and injury rates due to hostile families.

Working in child welfare takes a lot of courage and determination. As a result, it takes a special kind of person to enjoy this specialty. However, knowing you’re making a difference in the community at large is very rewarding.

Healthcare or medical

There’s a lot of overlap between medical social workers and gerontology social workers. One reason for this is that both deal with people becoming disabled due to aging or illness/injury. Here, the main difference is that you might work with clients of any age group. You may also work with hospice patients, which is a highly specialized area of social work, or with the parents of small children who have a disability.

Being a medical or healthcare social worker has certain benefits and drawbacks:

  • You’ll usually work in a hospital or home health/hospice agency, though other jobs are available.
  • Clients are usually dealing with serious illnesses or injuries that limit their ability to live independently.
  • Most clients are happy to have you help them.
  • You might do some counseling, especially in a hospice or palliative care setting.
  • There’s something different every day.

Medical social workers have a demanding job, because they need to know a lot about a wide variety of programs and supports. On the other hand, working conditions tend to be good, especially since the majority of clients and families are grateful for help.

Schools

Both primary and secondary schools often have a social worker on staff. In this capacity, you might do counseling (master’s usually required) or help students and their families solve practical problems. For instance, you might help a homeless student get into a shelter with his or her family or sign up a poor student for Medicaid. You might also let the bullied kid unload their emotional baggage.

As with other specialties, there are advantages and disadvantages:

  • Many social workers love to work with kids. Schools are often a “safe space,” which makes it even more rewarding.
  • Seeing a child feel better about themselves can be very rewarding.
  • Children are often grateful for your help.
  • Parents or caregivers might take exception to your suggestion that they need practical assistance.
  • Schools typically have excellent benefits-and it’s a great schedule if you have your own family.

In short, school social workers have a very rewarding job. It’s also a reasonably safe work environment with great benefits and an excellent schedule. However, if you don’t like kids then this probably isn’t your specialty. Also, you might have trouble finding a job with just a bachelor’s degree because many employers will require you to have a counseling license.

Final thoughts

Social work generally is a challenging, yet rewarding profession. You’ll also be able to make a living wage in most cases, and then advance your career through further education and upskilling. If you love people and want to make a difference in their lives, then social work may be a great career choice.