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Social Workers

Social workers are community troubleshooters. Through direct counseling, referral to other services, or policy making and advocacy, they help individuals, families, and groups cope with their problems. Those in the area of planning and policy help people understand how social systems operate and propose ways of bringing about needed change in institutions such as health services, housing, or education. Among the major helping professions, social work is distinguished by a tradition of concern for the poor and the disadvantaged.

The nature of the problem and the time and resources available determine which of several social work methods will be used. When necessary, the social worker refers clients to other professional or community resources. Using their training in human behavior, personality theory, and social group relations, for example, social workers might identify the need for assistance of children, teenagers, young adults, or older persons in places such as community centers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and correctional institutions. Social workers work in conjunction with or coordinate the efforts of civic, religious, career, and union organizations to combat social problems through community programs. For a neighborhood or larger area, they may help plan and develop health, housing, welfare, and recreation services. Social workers often coordinate existing services, organize fund- raising for community social welfare activities, and aid in developing new community services.

Social workers who specialize in family services counsel individuals, work to strengthen personal and family relationships, and help clients cope with problems. They provide information and referral services in many areas--family budgeting and money management, locating housing, homemaker assistance for the elderly, job training, and day care for children of working parents.

Improving the well-being of children and youth is the job of social workers who specialize in child welfare. They may advise parents on the care of severely handicapped infants, counsel children and youth with social adjustment difficulties, and arrange homemaker services during a parent's illness. Social workers may institute legal action to protect neglected or abused children, help unmarried parents, and counsel couples about adoption. After proper evaluation and home visits, they may place children for adoption or in foster homes or institutions. If children have serious problems in school, child welfare workers may consult with parents, teachers, counselors, and others to identify the underlying problems.

Medical social workers are trained to help patients and their families with problems that may accompany illness or inhibit recovery and rehabilitation. They work in hospitals, hospices, health maintenance organizations, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and offices of physicians.

Hospital social workers may work with patients or with families of patients suffering from emotionally devastating illnesses. Discharge planning is an increasingly important area of practice for hospital social workers because prospective payment, Medicare's new system of paying for hospital care, has made timely discharge a factor in the hospital's financial well-being. Other roles are evolving, too. In some hospitals, social workers undertake primary care functions in departments of pediatrics or obstetrics. They may help organize health screening and health education programs, collaborate with community agencies to coordinate care, or coordinate employee assistance programs. The mental health field attracts the most social workers. Much effort has gone into developing community residential facilities and an array of supportive services for the mentally disabled--services such as outreach, crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and training in skill of everyday living, to name a few. Social workers provide these services in community mental health centers, outpatient psychiatric clinics, and "drop-in" centers. Providing individual and group therapy is one of the principal tasks of social workers in State mental hospitals, Veterans Administration hospitals, private psychiatric hospitals, and psychiatric units of general hospitals.

Many of the small but growing number of social workers in private practice are clinical social workers. Like other mental health professionals, they offer psychotherapy or counseling to individuals, families, or groups. They might counsel families of troubled adolescents, help couples deal with marital difficulties, or organize group sessions for families of cancer victims, for example.

Social workers who specialize in the field of aging are also increasing in number. They plan and evaluate services for the elderly, and help older persons and their families deal with difficulties brought about by diminished capacities and changed circumstances. In nursing homes, for example, they help patients and their families adjust to the need for long-term institutional care.

Other social workers specialize in corrections. Correctional treatment specialists provide direct services for inmates of penal or correctional institutions, while probation and parole officers help offenders who are eligible for parole readjust to society. They counsel on the social problems that arise on returning to family and community life, and also may help secure necessary education, training, employment, or community services.

Working Conditions

Most social workers have a 5-day, 35-to 40-hour week. However, many, particularly in private agencies, work part time. Many work evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings, and handle emergency situations. Extra leave is generally granted for overtime. Because social workers often must visit clients or attend meetings, some travel may be necessary.


Social workers held 387,000 jobs in 1990. About 2 out of 5 jobs were in State, county, or municipal government agencies; relatively few were in the Federal Government. Social workers in the public sector are employed primarily in departments of human resources, social services, mental health, health, housing, education, and corrections. Those in the private sector work for voluntary nonprofit agencies; community and religious organizations; hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies; and other human service agencies.

Job settings vary considerably. Some social workers are employed in career and industry, as "industrial" or "occupational" social workers. They generally are located in the personnel department or health unit, and support employee welfare through counseling, educational programs, and referral to community agencies. Industrial social workers might, for example, counsel employees about emotional problems, alcoholism, or drug abuse.

Although employment is concentrated in urban areas, many social workers work with rural families. A small number of social workers--employed by the Federal Government and the United Nations or one of its affiliated agencies--serve in other parts of the world.

Training, Other Qualification, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for most professional positions in this field. Besides the bachelor's in social work (BSW), under-graduate majors in psychology, sociology, and related fields satisfy hiring requirements in many social service agencies. A master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally required for positions in the mental health field and is almost always necessary for supervisory, administrative, or research positions. A doctorate in social work usually is required for teaching and is desirable for some research and administrative jobs.

In 1990, there were 354 accredited BSW programs and 89 MSW programs. BSW programs prepare graduates for direct service positions such as caseworker or group worker. Classroom instruction is offered in social work practice, social welfare policies, human behavior and the social environment, and social research methods. All accredited programs require 400 hours of supervised field experience.

An MSW degree is preferred for clinical positions and is a decided asset for advancement to a supervisory position. It is essential for social workers in private practice. Two years of specialized study, including 900 hours of supervised field instruction, or internship, are required to earn a master's degree in social work. Field placement affords an opportunity to test one's suitability for social work practice. At the same time, the student may develop expertise in a specialized area and make personal contacts that later are helpful in securing a permanent job. Previous training in social work is not required for entry into a graduate program, but courses such as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, history, social anthropology, and urban studies, as well as social work, are recommended. Some graduate schools offer accelerated MSW programs for qualified applicants.

A limited number of scholarships and fellowships are available for graduate education. A few social welfare agencies grant workers educational leave to obtain graduate education.

Career advancement usually takes the form of promotion to supervisor, administrator, or director, although some social workers go into teaching, research, or consulting. Like other administrators, directors of social service agencies hire, train, and supervise staff, develop and evaluate agency programs, make budget decisions, solicit funds, and represent the agency in public.

Private practice offers variety, prestige, and the potential for much higher pay than most agency jobs. Social workers who wish to advance professionally without taking the supervisory or administrative route often consider private practice. Ordinarily, this means clinical practice--counseling individuals or groups--although some private practitioners specialize in organizational consulting. Not only an MSW but sufficiently varied work experience to develop a network of contacts for referral purposes is usually a prerequisite for a career as a private practitioner. Entrepreneurial ability is important for success in this rapidly developing but highly competitive field.

In addition to experience, which is essential, advancement in the social service field often requires an advanced degree. More than 40 schools of social work offer post- master's programs, most of which lead to a doctoral degree. Increasingly, social workers seeking to broaden their career options are pursuing graduate studies in related fields including human services administration, career administration, health services administration, education, and law. A number of graduate programs have developed joint degree programs in social work and another discipline.

In 1990, 33 States had licensing or registration laws regarding social work practice and the use of professional titles. Voluntary certification is offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which awards the title ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Workers) to those who qualify. For clinical social workers, professional credentials include listing in the NASW Register of Clinical Social Workers or in the Registry of Health Care Providers in Clinical Social Work.

Social workers should be emotionally mature, objective, and sensitive, and should possess a basic concern for people and their problems. They must be able to handle responsibility, work independently, and maintain good working relationships with clients and coworkers. Volunteer, part-time, or summer work as a social work aide offer ways of testing one's interest in pursuing a career in this field.

Job Outlook

Employment of social workers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000, reflecting public and private response to the needs of a growing and aging population. Demand for social workers is governed by funding; trends in public, private, and third-party spending for social work services are largely responsible for patterns of job growth. The need to replace social workers who leave the occupation or stop working is expected to be the principal source of jobs, however.

Prospects in public agencies are not as bright as they once were, due to the employment impact of anticipated budget constraints plus the trend toward "declassification" that is taking hold in more and more States. Declassification, or revision of State civil service regulations, may dampen demand for MSW's in public agencies since BSW's can legally perform the same job under revised regulations. Despite somewhat slower growth through the mid-1990's, State and local governments will retain their importance as a leading employer of social workers, and replacement needs alone will generate many job openings in this sector.

In elementary and secondary schools, little job growth is foreseen. Substantial expansion in the number of school social workers has already occurred in response to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975; only modest expansion is expected through 1995. This reflects anticipated trends in elementary and secondary school enrollments.

Prospects for hospital social workers are difficult to assess. A major employment setting, hospitals provide 1 out of every 10 social work jobs. Financing and organizational changes in this sector will affect the nature of the hospital social worker's job: Contacts with community agencies and organizations will take on unprecedented importance because of the pivotal role of discharge planning. Social workers in community-based programs for the elderly reportedly are being recruited for hospital social work jobs because of their extensive knowledge of community resources. Less certain are prospects for growth. It seems unlikely that employment of hospital social workers will increase much if at all, in view of the anticipated slowdown in hospital industry growth.

Home health is emerging as an increasingly important area of practice, not only because hospitals are moving to release patients more quickly, but because of the prevalence of functional disabilities among older persons requiring assistance in activities of daily living. Social workers in the home health field are primarily engaged in evaluation, assessment, and case management on the one hand, and administration and supervision, on the other.

Demand for social workers is expected to grow in outpatient facilities, including health maintenance organizations (HMO's) and rehabilitation facilities that offer alcohol and drug abuse programs. Financing is not an obstacle, as a rule; HMO's provide comprehensive care for a pre established fee, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs often are covered by employers or by health insurance, although some patients pay their own costs. Services provided by social workers in HMO's include counseling on teen age pregnancy, stress management, substance abuse, abortion, crisis intervention for cases of spouse or child abuse, assistance for the elderly, and case management.

Substantial growth is projected for social work jobs in private agencies that provide services for abused and neglected children, troubled youth, rape and spouse abuse victims, older people and their families, refugees, farm workers, couples with marital difficulties, and so forth.

Opportunities for social workers in private practice will continue to expand, in part because of growing acceptance of private social work practice by the profession and by the public at large, but also because of the anticipated availability of funding from health insurance and from an increasingly affluent population willing to pay for professional help with personal problems. Growing corporate support for employee assistance programs is expected to spur demand for the services of private practitioners, some of whom contract with corporations to run training sessions on group dynamics, or counsel employees on a variety of problem.

Entry into private practice does not guarantee success. Private practitioners must be able to market themselves to prospective purchasers of their services such as schools, health care providers, corporations, or individuals. Moreover, they must be prepared to deal with competition from psychologists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, and other mental health providers.

Job prospects for social workers vary a great deal. Opportunities differ, depending upon academic credentials, experience, and field of practice. Geographic location is a consideration, too. Competition is keen in cities where training programs for social workers abound. This competition is certain to intensify if social services are cut back in response to budget pressures on State and local governments. At the same time, population growth in the Sunbelt States is spurring expansion of social service programs there, and some isolated rural areas are finding it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff.

Trends in enrollment in social work education will affect job prospects for social workers through the mid-1990's. The number of social work degrees awarded each year peaked in the late 1970's and has been declining ever since. A number of factors, of which the impending decrease in the college-age population is the most important, point to a continued decline. If fewer people prepare for social work careers while demand continues to grow, conditions in the job market are likely to improve. Job search problems of MSW's should abate and prospects for BSW's probably will improve. Very strong competition will continue, however, for the substantial number of associate and bachelor's degree holders seeking entry level human service jobs that do not require formal preparation in social work.


Salaries for social workers at all levels vary greatly by type of agency (private or public; Federal, State, or local) and geographic region, but generally are highest in large cities and in States with sizable urban populations. Private practitioners, administrators, teachers, and researchers often earn considerably more than other types of social workers. Median earnings for full-time social workers were $23,300 a year in 1990. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,100 and $30,500 per year. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $13,400 a year while the top 10 percent earned over $41,000 a year.

MSW's generally earn more. In 1990, the average salary for social workers with an MSW was $29,400 a year, according to a membership survey conducted by the National Association of Social Work.

The average annual starting salary for social workers in hospitals and medical centers (positions requiring an MSW) was about $23,544 in 1990, according to a survey conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch. The average salary for experienced social workers in these settings was about $32,610 a year.

Related Occupations

Through direct counseling or referral to other services, social workers help people solve a range of personal problems. Workers in occupations with similar duties include the clergy, counselors, counseling psychologists, and vocation rehabilitation counselors.

Sources of Additional Information

For information about career opportunities in social work, contact:

National Association of Social Workers, 7981 Eastern Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 20910.

The Council on Social Work Education publishes an annual Directory of Accredited BSW Programs and Directory of Accredited MSW Programs, which may be purchased for $2 each, postpaid.


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