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Social Workers: Making A Difference In People’s Lives

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Social work is a career option in which you can really make a difference in the lives of others. It can open many avenues and show others that you have not only have the understanding and the expertise, but also the compassion and commitment essential to work in such an important and significant field.

Nature of the Work:

Social workers help individuals, families, and groups cope with problems of every description. Mostly, however, they aid people who are having difficulties dealing with circumstances in their lives, the homeless, the unemployed, the seriously ill, the bereaved, and the handicapped. Among the major helping professions, social work is distinguished by a tradition of concern for the poor, the disadvantaged, and those too young or too old to fend for themselves.

Through direct counseling and referral to other services, social workers help people overcome the problems they face. Through policymaking and advocacy, they help make society more responsive to people's changing needs. Major areas of social work practice include child welfare and family services, mental health, medical social work, school social work, community organization, planning and policy development, and social welfare administration.

Social workers in child welfare or family services provide a wide array of services, depending on the client's needs and resources. Improving the well-being of children and youth is the traditional role of child welfare workers. They may advise parents on the care of handicapped infants, counsel children and youth who have difficulties in social adjustment, or arrange homemaker service during a parent's illness. If children have serious problems in school, child welfare workers may consult with parents, teachers, and counselors to identify underlying problems. Some social workers assist single parents, counsel couples about adoption, and help find homes for neglected or abandoned children. Child welfare workers also work in residential institutions for children and adolescents.

A growing number of social workers specialize in child or adult protective services. Those in child protective services investigate reported cases of abuse and neglect and intervene if necessary. They sometimes institute legal action to remove the child from the home, placing the child, temporarily, in an emergency shelter or with a foster family. Social workers who specialize in adult protective services take similar steps on behalf of adults, typically battered wives, neglected or abused elderly, or mentally impaired individuals.

Whenever a social worker helps an individual or a family in crisis, direct counseling is a major part of the job. This requires effective listening skills and facility in creating a climate of openness and trust. Several meetings with the client and others familiar with the situation may be necessary in order to establish all the relevant facts. Using their training in human behavior, personality theory, group relations, and casework, social workers engaged in direct counseling help clients bring their real concerns into the open and consider possible solutions.

Often, the social worker provides concrete information in areas that are unfamiliar or bewildering to the client: Where to go for debt counseling; how to word a help-wanted ad for childcare or eldercare; how to apply for public assistance, disability benefits, or child support; where to report suspected cases of abuse; how to get an alcoholic admitted to a rehabilitation program.

Case management and other coordinating activities represent an increasingly important job duty. Case management is directed at identifying and pulling together the most appropriate package of services in consultation with the client and then following through to assure that needed services, transportation, housing, or a sheltered workshop placement for a mentally retarded adult, for example, are actually provided. Once having determined what services would benefit the client, case managers may review eligibility requirements, fill out forms and applications, arrange for transportation or escort service, visit the client on a regular basis, and step in during emergencies.

The mental health field attracts many 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 skills of everyday living, to name a few.

Social workers provide these services in community mental health centers, outpatient psychiatric clinics, emergency shelters, and drop-in centers. Psychiatric social workers are also employed in State mental hospitals, Veterans Administration hospitals, for-profit psychiatric hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities and psychiatric units of general hospitals. Providing individual and group therapy for psychiatric patients is one of their principal job duties. In addition, some social workers help plan for supportive services to ease patients' return to the community.

Social workers employed in hospitals and other health care establishments are often called medical social workers. They are trained to help patients and their families cope with devastating illnesses and handle problems that may stand in the way of recovery or rehabilitation. Most medical social workers employed by hospitals handle patient counseling or discharge planning. Those who work in nursing homes may help with the admissions process and direct the activities program in addition to counseling residents and their families.

Patient counseling working with children suffering from a terminal illness, for example is handled differently from one hospital to the next. Generally, however, it is the responsibility of the social work department. This traditional role has expanded as technology has made it possible for very sick people to survive months or even years longer than they used to. In addition, the increasingly popular practice of assisting family caregivers has created new roles for hospital social workers, who have taken the lead in organizing support groups for families of patients suffering from cancer, Alzheimer's disease, or other illnesses that impose a heavy burden on families.

Discharge planning is an important part of the hospital social worker's job. This has come about because hospitals are under financial pressure to release patients as soon as possible. Discharge planners arrange for the various services from meals-on-wheels to oxygen equipment that make it possible to send patients home as soon as their medical condition warrants it.

Other medical social work roles are evolving. In some hospitals, social workers undertake primary care functions in departments of pediatrics or obstetrics. A few specialize in organ transplant procurements. Others work on interdisciplinary teams that specialize in evaluating certain kinds of patients, geriatric or transplant patients, for example. Social workers are also involved in hospitals' efforts to bring in business by offering new programs and services. Examples are adult day care, respite care, hospice care, health screening and education, worksite wellness, and employee assistance programs.

School social workers help students and teachers alike. Chiefly concerned with supporting children in trouble and integrating handicapped students into the general school population, school social workers diagnose problems and arrange needed services. A school social worker might arrange transportation for a disabled child one hour and then spend the next hour helping a pregnant teenager think about childcare arrangements. The primary goal is to encourage students and help them overcome obstacles that stand in the way of learning.

Often, a school social worker is called in when a student skips class on a regular basis or acts totally out of character. The social worker interviews the student, the family, and the teacher to try get at the source of the problem. If it appears that family matters are the root of the problem, the social worker might provide short-term counseling or refer the family to a community agency. The social worker might even accompany the family for the first few visits, just to be sure that needed services are being used.

At times the social worker will be called in by the teacher to observe a particular student in an effort to determine whether a student is in fact experiencing difficulties. Other times teachers ask for advice on dealing with a particular student's behavior, or with a classroom situation that arises during the course of the day.

Some social workers specialize in the field of criminal justice. They work with criminal offenders, providing direct services for inmates of penal or correctional institutions. 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. Juvenile and adult probation officers provide similar services to individuals sentenced by the court to probation as an alternative to prison.

Industrial or occupational social workers are employed by business firms to run employee assistance programs, for the most part. They generally are located in the personnel department or health unit, and offer direct counseling to employees and their families, develop education programs, and provide information about community resources. These social workers typically counsel employees whose performance at work is affected by alcoholism, drug abuse, or emotional problems. In a few companies, employee assistance programs focus on other sources of stress; social workers may help employees investigate childcare or eldercare arrangements, for example.

A growing number of social workers are in private practice. Most of these are clinical social workers who offer psychotherapy or counseling to individuals, families, and groups. They might work with families of troubled adolescents, help couples deal with marital difficulties, assist individuals experiencing job-related stress, or set up support groups for people coping with similar situations.

Some private practitioners specialize in organizational consulting, and contract with business firms to counsel employees during plant closings, workforce reductions, or other stressful changes in the work environment. Still others serve as consultants to trade unions and develop educational, recreational, and service programs for active and retired members.

A small but growing number of private practice social workers specialize in gerontological services. Some run support groups for family caretakers or for the adult children of aging parents. Others provide geriatric case management services on a fee-for-service basis. They assess service needs and then advise elderly people or family members about the choices open to them in such areas as housing, transportation, and long-term care. They coordinate and may monitor services, providing as much or as little assistance as the client desires.

In addition to their work with individual clients, gerontological social workers often serve as consultants for government agencies, community organizations, and business firms. They might evaluate existing programs for the elderly, for example, and advise on new programs and services.

Working Conditions:

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

The work, while satisfying, can be emotionally draining. Understaffing and large caseloads add to the pressure in some agencies.


Social workers held jobs in State, county and municipal government agencies; relatively few are 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 mostly for voluntary social service agencies, community and religious organizations, hospitals, nursing homes, and home health agencies.

Although employment is concentrated in urban areas, many social workers work with rural families. A small number of American social workers serve in other parts of the world under the auspices of the Federal Government, the United Nations, or one of the voluntary international social service agencies.

Training, Other Qualifications, 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), undergraduate majors in psychology, sociology, and related fields satisfy hiring requirements in many agencies, especially small community agencies. A master's degree in social work (MSW) is generally necessary for professional social work positions in health and mental health settings. Jobs in public agencies may require an MSW as well. A master's degree in social work 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.

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 BSW programs require 400 hours of supervised field experience.

An MSW degree prepares graduates to perform assessments, serve as case managers, and advance to supervisory or administrative positions. 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 contact that later are helpful in securing a permanent job. Previous training in social work is not required for entry into an MSW 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 who have earned BSW degrees.

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. In addition to experience, which is essential, advancement generally requires additional graduate education. Some schools of social work offer advanced practice certificate programs in specialized fields of practice like family counseling. A few schools offer Ph.D. or DSW (Doctor of Social Work) programs for individuals interested in careers in research, teaching, policy analysis, private practice, or consulting.

Social workers seeking to broaden their career options are also pursuing graduate studies in related fields including human services administration, public administration, business administration, health services administration, education, and law. A number of colleges and universities offer joint degree programs.

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. Others set up private case management agencies. An MSW as well as 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.

Voluntary certification is offered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which grants 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. These credentials are particularly important for social workers in private practice; some health insurance providers require them for reimbursement.

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 jobs 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 in response to the needs of a growing and aging population. The need to replace social workers who leave the occupation or stop working is expected to be the principal source of jobs, however.

Demand for social workers is governed not only by the need for services, but also by the availability of funds to pay for these services. Due to anticipated budget constraints, prospects in public agencies are not as bright as they once were. Some public programs are likely to expand notably child protective services, services for the elderly, and community-based services for the mentally retarded and chronically mentally ill. Others, however, may contract in the face of budgetary limitations. Programs most likely to be cut are public assistance, State mental hospitals, and training schools for the mentally retarded.

Job growth in public agencies will continue to be subject to considerable regional variation, reflecting differences in economic conditions, budget priorities, and the tradition of public support for social welfare services. Among the States, some have a long history of commitment to publicly funded human services, while others have had a more limited view of social welfare spending. Despite regional variations, State and local governments are expected to retain their importance as a leading employer of social workers. Replacement needs alone will generate many openings in this large sector.

Substantial growth is projected for social work jobs in voluntary agencies as well as in the small for-profit sector. These will be casework counseling and case management jobs, for the most part. Projected employment growth in this sector reflects the rapidly increasing number of older persons, on the one hand, and stepped-up spending for child protective services, on the other.

Older people's needs for social work services cut across distinctions of income and social class. Death of a spouse, poor eyesight, a broken hip, or other characteristic losses of old age can overwhelm affluent people as well as those who are poor. Nonetheless, certain groups of older people may require the services of a social worker more than others. This is particularly true for people living alone, predominantly widows of advanced age, who frequently arc in poor health and living on very low incomes.

Exceptionally rapid growth is projected in the number of Americans over the age of 85 in the years immediately ahead. This is expected to produce a sharp increase in social service needs and substantial growth in the number of social work personnel involved in assisting the elderly and their adult children.

The demand for services provided by social workers will not be limited to the elderly, however. Changes in society, the family, and the role of religion have made it more acceptable to turn to mental health professionals instead of clergy or close family members for advice and emotional support. Social workers who provide mental health counseling work either in agency settings or as private practitioners. Demand in both areas is projected to grow rapidly.

Opportunities for social workers in private practice will expand, not only because of growing acceptance of private practice by the profession and by the public at large, but because of the anticipated availability of funding from health insurance, from public sector contracts, and from an increasingly affluent population willing to pay for professional help in dealing with personal problems. The growing popularity of employee assistance programs is also expected to spur demand for private practitioners, some of whom provide social work services to corporations on a contract basis.

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.

Prospects for hospital social workers should be favorable, largely because of greatly increased emphasis on discharge planning, which facilitates early discharge of hospital patients by assuring that the necessary medical services and social supports are in place. The pivotal role of social workers in discharge planning is expected to sustain strong demand for hospital social workers.

Home health is gaining importance as an area of social work practice, not only because hospitals are moving to release patients more quickly, but because a large and growing number of people have impairments or disabilities that make it difficult to live at home without some form of assistance. Social workers determine what kind of assistance is most appropriate, establish the client's eligibility for publicly funded in-home services, and supervise the aides who provide direct care.

Demand for social workers is also expected to grow in health maintenance organizations (HMO's), medical group practices and rehabilitation facilities that minister to alcoholics and drug abusers. Services provided by social workers in HMO's include counseling on teenage pregnancy, stress management, substance abuse, family planning, crisis intervention for cases of spouse or child abuse, assistance for the elderly, and case management

The overall outlook for school social workers is good, especially for persons with training or experience in this area. Growing awareness that scholastic achievement depends upon the child's ability to concentrate on school is among the factors likely to heighten demand. School authorities' efforts to respond to the adjustment problems of newly arrived immigrants, children from broken families, and others in difficult situations will contribute to job growth.

Moreover, continued emphasis on integrating handicapped children into the general school population a requirement under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act will probably lead to more jobs as school officials take steps to expand and strengthen the services they offer. The availability of State and local funding will dictate the actual increase in jobs in this setting, however.

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 stronger in cities where training programs for social workers abound. 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 the number of individuals obtaining degrees in social work may affect job prospects. While the number of individuals earning BSW and MSW degrees from accredited programs appears to be on the upswing, the number of new social work graduates is not likely to return to earlier attained peak levels. In light of the impending decrease in the college-age population, the supply of formally prepared social workers is not likely to keep pace with anticipated growth in social work positions.

This does not imply a shortage of social workers, in view of the abundant supply of new college graduates, career changers, and reentrants who have the requisite education or experience. However, it does indicate that a larger proportion of social service positions will be filled by people without professional preparation. Competition for entry level human service jobs, which historically has been keen, should abate somewhat. As in the past, competition will be strongest for social work positions offering the most favorable pay and benefits.

Related Occupations:

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