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Job Profile and Employment Opportunities for Social Workers

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Nature of the Work

Social workers help people deal with a wide range of problems. They help individuals and families cope with mental illness and problems such as inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of job skills, financial mismanagement, serious illness, disability, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, or antisocial behavior. They also work with families who have serious conflicts, including those involving child or spousal abuse.

Through direct counseling, social workers help clients identify their concerns, consider solutions, and find resources. Often, social workers provide concrete information such as where to go for debt counseling, how to find child care or elder care, how to apply for public assistance or other benefits, or how to get an alcoholic or drug addict admitted to a rehabilitation program. Social workers may also arrange for services in consultation with clients and then follow through to assure the services are actually helpful. They may review eligibility requirements, fill out forms and applications, arrange for services, visit clients on a regular basis, and provide support during crises.

Most social workers specialize in a clinical field such as child welfare and family services, mental health, or school social work.

Clinical social workers offer psychotherapy or counseling and a range of services in public agencies, clinics, as well as in private practice. Other social workers are employed in community organization, administration, or research.

Social workers in child welfare or family services may counsel children and youths who have difficulty adjusting socially, advise parents on how to care for disabled children, or arrange for homemaker services 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 causes and develop plans for treatment. Some social workers assist single parents, arrange adoptions, and help find foster homes for neglected, abandoned, or abused children. Child welfare workers also work in residential institutions for children and adolescents.

Social workers in child or adult protective services investigate reports of abuse and neglect and intervene if necessary. They may institute legal action to remove children from homes and place them temporarily in an emergency shelter or with a foster family.

Mental health social workers provide services for persons with mental or emotional problems, such as individual and group therapy, outreach, crisis intervention, social rehabilitation, and training in skills of everyday living. They may also help plan for supportive services to ease patients' return to the community.

Health care social workers help patients and their families cope with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses and handle problems that may stand in the way of recovery or rehabilitation. They may organize support groups for families of patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, or other illnesses. They also advise family caregivers, counsel patients, and help plan for their needs after discharge by arranging for at-home services- from meals-on-wheels to oxygen equipment. Some work on interdisciplinary teams that evaluate certain kinds of patients-geriatric or transplant patients, for example.

School social workers diagnose students' problems and arrange needed services, counsel children in trouble, and help integrate disabled students into the general school population. School social workers deal with problems such as student pregnancy, misbehavior in class, and excessive absences. They also advise teachers on how to deal with problem students.

Social workers in criminal justice make recommendations to courts, do presentencing assessments, and provide services for prison inmates and their families. Probation and parole office provide similar services to individuals sentenced by a court parole or probation.

Occupational social workers generally work with corporation's personnel department or health unit. Through employee assistance programs, they help workers cope with job related pressures or personal problems that affect the quality their work. They offer direct counseling to employees, often those whose performance is hindered by emotional or family problem or substance abuse. They also develop education programs; and refer workers to specialized community programs.

Some social workers specialize in gerontological service. They run support groups for family caregivers or for the ac children of aging parents; advice elderly people or family members about the choices in such areas as housing, transportation and long-term care; and coordinate and monitor services.

Social workers also focus on policy and planning. They develop programs to address such issues as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, and violence. These workers research and analyze policies, programs, and regulations. They identify social problems and suggest legislative and other solutions. They may help raise funds or write grants to supp these programs.

Working Conditions

Most social workers have a standard 40-hour week. However, they may work some evenings and weekends to meet with clients, attend community meetings, and handle emergencies. Some, particularly in voluntary nonprofit agencies, work part time. They may spend most of their time in an office or residential facility, but may also travel locally to visit clients or hold meetings with service providers.


Although most social workers are employed in cities suburbs, some work in rural areas. Social workers should be emotionally mature, objective, and sensitive to people and their problems. They must be able to handle responsibility, work independently, and maintain good raking relationships with clients and coworkers.

Job Outlook

The number of older people, who are more likely to need social services, is growing rapidly. In addition, rising crime and juvenile delinquency as well as increasing concern about services for the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, AIDS patients, and individuals and families in crisis will spur demand for social workers. Many job openings will also arise due to the need to replace social workers who leave the occupation.

Projected employment growth among social workers in hospitals reflects greater emphasis on discharge planning, which facilitates early discharge of patients by assuring that the necessary medical services and social supports are in place when individuals leave the hospital.

Employment of social workers in private social service agencies will grow, but not as rapidly as demand for their services.

Agencies will increasingly restructure services and hire lower paid human services workers instead of social workers.

Employment in government should also grow in response to increasing needs for public welfare and family services. However, employment levels will depend on government funding for various social service programs.

Social worker employment in home health care services is growing, not only because hospitals are releasing 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.

Opportunities for social workers in private practice will expand because of the anticipated availability of funding from health insurance and public-sector contracts. Also, with increasing affluence, people will be better able to pay for professional help to deal 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 ser-vices to corporations on a contractual basis.

Employment of school social workers is expected to grow, due to expanded efforts to respond to the adjustment problems of immigrants, children from single-parent families, and rising rates of teen pregnancy. Moreover, continued emphasis on integrating disabled children into the general school population-a requirement under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act- will lead to more jobs. Availability of state and local funding will dictate the actual increase in jobs in this setting, however.

Competition for social worker jobs is stronger in cities where training programs for social workers abound; rural areas often find it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff.

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 vocational rehabilitation counselors.
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