What's Here? - Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.