Social work offers a rewarding career for anyone interested in helping others work toward a better life. With community, fairness, and helping people at its heart, it’s perfect if you have a keen sense of social justice.
It’s a profession for candidates with integrity who are passionate about helping the more vulnerable members of society, supporting them through challenges, and empowering them to take ownership of their lives.
If you’re considering a career in social work, you may wonder whether you have the academic and personal skills required for this demanding but fulfilling role. In this article, we will explore the role of a social worker, explaining what it involves and describing the personal and professional attributes required to take on this stimulating position.
We’ll also explain how you could gain a qualification that will enable you to begin a career in social work, even if you don’t have a background in the field. Once you’ve read the article, you’ll have a good understanding of the social worker role and an idea of whether it’s a career that would suit your personality and professional aspirations.
A social worker’s mission is to help people facing social issues and give them the support they need to overcome them and live full and productive lives.
These social issues can include:
- Health conditions, including mental health issues
- Lack of decent housing
- Substance abuse
- Domestic abuse
Many social workers operate ‘on the frontline’, helping communities and individuals directly. They may work in a general capacity or specialize in a particular section of the community – for example, children or homeless people.
Typically, a social worker’s tasks include:
- Identifying the needs of their clients – for example, help from outside agencies such as substance abuse or healthcare services.
- Creating care plans for their clients with defined goals and details of how these will be attained.
- Referring and signposting clients to appropriate resources and services.
- Serving as a continuous point of contact and source of support for clients.
- Evaluating their clients’ progress and needs continuously and adjusting their care plan accordingly.
- Liaising with other professionals ensures their clients get the help they require.
While many professionals pursue a career in generalist social work with a wide remit of tasks, others prefer to focus on a niche area. Let’s look at some of these specialist areas of social work.
A clinical social worker has undertaken further study – for example, a Master of Social Work – to provide therapeutic services to their clients. This means that they work with individuals and families experiencing mental illness or emotional or behavioral issues.
Thanks to their clinical training, they are equipped to use several interventions and therapies to aid their clients, who typically may be living with anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and more. They are also trained to provide support in times of mental health crisis. This will include liaising with other professional services to ensure their clients get help.
Clinical social workers are also able to help their clients place greater priority on their mental and emotional well-being so that they can function in society more comfortably.
In this highly specialized role, social workers support birth parents, adoptive parents, and children through the practical and emotional aspects of the adoption process. Their tasks include assessing families who wish to adopt, matching children to adoptive parents, working closely with birth parents, and liaising with adoption agencies and governmental organizations.
A significant part of the adoption social worker’s role is to offer counseling and support throughout the journey to the birth parents, adoptive parents, and child or children involved. This means they must build relationships with their clients, acting as a constant and reliable source of support throughout the adoption process.
A social worker who works closely with women recognizes their rights and needs as individuals, separate from any role they may play within the family, home, or any other context. Typically, a women’s social worker may support women going through domestic abuse situations, unplanned pregnancies, and addiction issues.
Often, these problems are compounded by the fact that the woman is the main caregiver for children or other vulnerable family members. A women’s social worker will recognize this phenomenon and work closely with their clients to achieve the best outcome not just for the family but also for the woman concerned.
They may also offer counseling and therapy services or signpost their clients to them to ensure that they have the inner resources and tools to manage their circumstances with confidence.
Social work and leadership
Social workers with significant experience ‘on the ground’ may move into strategic or leadership roles to help improve policies, systems, and services. They may work as team leaders, coordinating several social workers and offering them support and mentorship.
Alternatively, they could work at a strategic level in the field of public policy, helping to inform plans around vulnerable communities and putting together programs that will give them the voice and support they need.
Many roles in social work require leadership skills, each with the ultimate aim of achieving a better and fairer society for all. These are just a few of the many areas of social work. There is a whole spectrum of career choices and directions.
Social worker qualities
Undoubtedly, social work is a wide-ranging and fascinating career, offering many opportunities to work with diverse sections of society. If you are interested in working in this role, you should know that it requires certain personal attributes and specific qualifications.
Let’s start with the personal qualities you’ll need to become a successful social worker – a wide range of characteristics are called upon in this demanding but fulfilling profession.
Communication is a vital skill for social workers. They must be flexible enough to converse with people from all walks of life and sometimes in stressful circumstances.
Communication is a two-way street, however. It’s just as important for social workers to use their listening and speaking skills when communicating with their clients. They must also be adept at communicating with other professionals, with a level of assertiveness that means they succeed in securing the services their clients need.
Advocacy is another skill that’s indispensable for social workers. Closely linked to communication, advocacy is the ability to speak clearly on behalf of their clients, asserting their rights and needs and ensuring that they can access the service to which they are entitled.
This requires a degree of assertiveness, diplomacy, and persistence to ensure that clients’ voices are heard and their rights addressed. It’s a complex and demanding skill, but it can be learned with practice, support, and experience.
A willingness to understand clients’ situations, feelings, and reactions – in other words, empathy – is an essential requirement of the social worker role. Only by putting aside any judgments and prejudices and trying to see life from another person’s perspective will you be able to offer the best possible support and guidance to people in vulnerable situations.
When you show empathy and a desire to help your clients, regardless of their circumstances, they will be more likely to respond positively. This, in turn, means they will be in a stronger position to accept the help they need and get a better outcome.
This is another personal attribute that enhances the social worker role. When working with vulnerable individuals and communities, you must notice the small and seemingly insignificant details about their lives. These details enable you to build up a bigger picture of their situation and identify clues that may speak volumes about their lives.
Often, clients have difficulty communicating clearly or expressing how they feel. It’s this attention to detail that will enable you to gather the information you need to know how to help them.
Regarding qualifications, a typical route to becoming a social worker involves studying for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and then applying for social work licensure in the state where you intend to practice.
To obtain a social work license, you must take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam in the appropriate category (Associate, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Advanced Generalist, Clinical).
Another route into social work is to take a Master of Social Work (MSW) following a degree in another field. This is a great way to transfer your existing skills and open up new career opportunities in a different area. Once you’ve completed your MSW program, you will be ready to take the ASWB exam, gain licensure, and start practicing in this rewarding career.
In the future, you may even go on to study at a deeper level in a Doctor of Social Work program (DSW). Throughout your career, you will participate in continuing education to ensure that your skills and knowledge are up to date and that you understand the current issues around social work.
The personal attributes and qualifications listed in the sections above may seem daunting. Still, if you are willing to learn and build on your existing skills, then the chances are that you could make a great success of a career in social work.
Of course, it helps if you are already a ‘people person’ who enjoys the company of others and has a strong sense of social justice. However, you should also know that when you embark on a program of study to qualify as a social worker, you will get the chance to develop these skills and many others with the support of experienced faculty staff.
Practical experience will also help you develop the skills you need to advocate for your clients and ensure that they get the best possible outcome for their situation.
A career as a social worker could be closer than you think. You could embark on a qualification in social work and qualify in less than two years. If you have a bachelor’s degree in any field, look out for an MSW program, which will teach you what you need to know about the principles and practices of this rewarding area of work. The expertise you have already gained in your first degree will serve as a solid foundation for expanding your knowledge into social work and giving you the necessary skills to embark on this exciting career.
If you already have a full schedule, then search for an online MSW program that will allow you to study at your own pace and in a location of your choosing. The Online Master of Social Work program offered by Cleveland State University can help you work toward becoming a social worker, either as a full-time or part-time student.
With 100% of the coursework delivered online and no requirement for campus visits, you will have the freedom to fit your study around your existing commitments. Distance learning can present a great solution for anyone who already has a busy work or home life.
The program also allows you to specialize as either a clinical social worker, focusing on helping clients with mental health or emotional issues, or an advanced generalist social worker, enabling you to work across various settings and organizations. You can also study for further certification in chemical dependency and gerontology. You will also be supported to complete field placements, meaning that you get hands-on experience of what social work is all about. The program will prepare you for licensure and enable you to start a long and stimulating career.
Once you are qualified and licensed as a social worker, rest assured that you have a bright future ahead. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2016 to 2026, the number of social workers will have increased to 790,000 – this represents a 16% growth rate, much greater than the 7% growth rate for all occupations in the same period. Moreover, social workers enjoy higher-than-average pay, with a median annual wage of $46,890. These statistics mean that the social worker role is set to be in demand for many years to come and can offer a comfortable standard of living for any professional who opts to enter this field.
A career that pays dividends
Social work is certainly a demanding role, but it pays dividends in terms of rewards. Not only will it give you the satisfaction of seeing others rebuild their lives, flourish, and thrive, but you’ll also get the chance to see social justice in action.
If you already have a degree in another area, then a career in social work could be more attainable than you previously thought. When you sign up for an MSW, you will gain the skills and knowledge you need to transition into this fulfilling career.
Are you curious to know more? If so, make sure that you check out the MSW offered by Cleveland State University. It’s designed for candidates just like you, who have a lot to give.