June 1, 2018
Social work as a professional practice and academic discipline centers on helping individuals, groups, communities, and society as a whole achieve their goals.
If you're interested in making a positive difference in people's lives and affecting social change, social work can be a meaningful and fulfilling career. It's also a sector of the workforce that is projected "to grow 16% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations" due to increased demand for healthcare and social services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
How do you become a social worker? The short answer is to get licensed in the state in which you intend to practice. But it's important to note that the term "social worker" is sometimes used in different ways by the general public and by employers.
"The public will talk about social workers generally and associate the term with a range of social service positions," said Michelle Alvarez, associate dean of social sciences at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). "Employers, meanwhile, understand that if they title a position "social worker" or hire someone to practice social work, they need to be licensed according to state laws."
For that reason, the longer answer to the question about how to become a social worker involves the following, according to Alvarez:
According to BLS, "Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues."
"Social workers, perhaps more than the other helping professions, are able to meet people where they are - socially, emotionally, even physically - and view the person in their whole environment," Alvarez said. "We're not only working with that individual, we're thinking about the broader system in which they're involved. That's why you often find social workers out in the community, on site, or wherever they need to be to support the client."
To this end, social workers need to master several skills. These include:
"Each jurisdiction [such as a state, province, territory, etc.] defines by law what is required for each category of social work license," according to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). These licensing examination categories include:
All states have adopted the ASWB licensing examinations, "but the specific license requirements for a social work license, in terms of the necessary education and field experience, vary state by state," said Alvarez. "Generally speaking in the United States, a social work degree from a program accredited by the CSWE is the requirement for the field."
As part of your traditional or online social work degree, you learn about the profession's code of ethics, cross-cultural perspectives and competencies, human behavior, systems theory, and more, often while gaining valuable real-world experience through field placements. Through education and training, you also come to understand how evidence-based approaches support your work and how to measure client outcomes.
While there is overlap between the job functions of social workers and other helping professions (BLS identifies several similar occupations), "there are philosophical differences as well as real-world differences, for example, in terms of titles and income," said Metoka Welch, associate dean of counseling at SNHU. For that reason, you might consider pursuing a degree or credentials in related fields like psychology, counseling (mental health counseling, school counseling, marriage and family counseling, etc.), human services, or human development.
Regardless of which degree or career path you choose, you can expect to work with others from the helping professions. "Ideally, all the members of the client's team, including the social worker, the counselor, the psychologist, the medical doctor, can come together on behalf of a person in order to coordinate their efforts to help," Welch said. "An integrated approach to caring for the whole person is a best practice in the helping professions."
Nowadays, social workers can be found working across a variety of settings, including hospitals and medical settings, crisis and rehabilitation centers, schools (elementary through higher education), for-profit and nonprofit organizations, private and public sectors. In fact, according to the National Association for Social Workers' 2011 "Social Workers in Government Agencies" report, social workers are "key employees in federal, state, and local government agencies" who often work on-site, in collaboration with non-governmental agencies, or as independent contractors or consultants.
Importantly, Alvarez said, there are three broad categories of social work practice or service:
"A person needs to ask themselves, 'How do I think change happens and where do I want to make the biggest impact?'" said Welch, who prefers the in-depth interactions of one-on-one counseling sessions. Meanwhile, working in school settings gave Alvarez the opportunity to work with individual students, families, teachers, as well as administrators-sometimes all in one day. The key to entering the field is recognizing your strengths, limitations, and preferences, and then pursuing social work positions that align with those.
Finally, as a way to start or advance your social work career, you may want to learn about or join professional organizations for social workers. Check out the following:
Pete Davies is a marketing and communications director in higher education. Follow him on Twitter @daviespete or connect on LinkedIn.
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