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4 Alternative Careers for Social Workers

October 12, 2023

Human resources manager, community health worker and probation officer might not be traditional social work roles — but they rely on many of the same skills that social workers use to help others overcome life’s challenges. 

In fact, earning a social work degree can prepare graduates for a host of alternative careers for social workers that require competencies like communication, compassion and cultural competence. While those pursuing an advanced education may want to explore rewarding opportunities as clinical social workers, they should also consider the plethora of related opportunities available to them.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Professionals whose degrees are in social work often become social workers, helping individuals and families access the services and resources they need to improve their lives. Graduates of Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) programs often become clinical social workers, providing direct assistance to individuals, groups, families and couples through therapy and behavior modification.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 708,100 social workers were employed across the nation in 2021.

Clinical social workers may assist specific populations of people or specialize in work at certain facilities. Areas of specialization include:

  • Child and family social work: protecting those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance through finding housing or resources such as child care or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP). 
  • Mental health and substance use social work: offering support to those struggling with mental illness or substance misuse issues
  • School social work: collaborating with teachers, administrators, parents and students to improve academic performance and social development
  • Health care social work: helping individuals understand their medical conditions and treatment and supporting them in making lifestyle adjustments
  • Forensic social work: assisting victims of crime or supporting children in the juvenile justice system

Social Worker Skills

Not everyone with a social work degree pursues a career as a social worker. The diverse skill set associated with receiving a social work education lends itself to other roles, too. To equip themselves to assist and advocate for individuals’ well-being, social work students develop transferable skills and competencies such as:

  • Communication: actively listening to and understanding people’s challenges
  • Organization: managing multiple caseloads, including clients’ documents, schedules and appointments
  • Interpersonal relationships: fostering productive relationships with clients and colleagues, who may come from diverse backgrounds
  • Critical thinking: considering a variety of options and developing solutions that help people overcome their problems
  • Compassion and nonjudgement: empathizing with people regarding the difficult situations they face

Social Worker Career Alternatives 

For those with a social work education, such as an M.S.W., many careers outside the social work field can provide opportunities to put that training to use. Some roles have responsibilities that overlap with those of traditional social workers, such as community outreach, counseling and advocacy. Following are some alternative careers for social workers:


Counselors typically offer guidance to certain populations or focus on specific concerns. They may work with individuals or groups, helping them cope with and overcome challenges ranging from mental illness to substance misuse. Many of these professionals have a background in social services, including social work. 

These roles call for the compassion, patience and critical thinking that social work professionals typically possess. Additionally, M.S.W. graduates often have the clinical assessment and diagnostic skills that counseling requires. While an undergraduate or graduate education is often enough to qualify for certain counseling roles, some also call for licensure. 

Among the types of counseling roles that social work graduates can pursue are:

Substance Use Counselor

Counselors who focus on substance misuse and behavioral disorders, sometimes called addiction counselors, help people learn healthy ways to overcome their dependence issues and cope with life’s challenges. They provide professional support to people working to maintain recovery from substance misuse and behavioral disorders.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors work with people who have mental health conditions and concerns, such as those related to anxiety, grief and depression. These professionals assist clients in identifying specific treatment goals and delivering evidence-based interventions to improve the quality of their health, relationships and overall well-being. Some mental health counselors specialize in assisting certain populations, such as older adults or youth.

School Counselor

School counselors assist with academic and social development as well as emotional concerns. They work with families, teachers and administrators to ensure that curricula meet students’ academic and developmental needs, and they help students overcome challenges that can affect their academic progress. High school counselors also assist students who are planning for postsecondary education and those who are planning to enter the workforce.

Counselors at the collegiate level, often called advisers, help students select majors and stay on course in their studies. They may specialize in assisting students with admissions or financial aid. 

Career Counselor

Also called career coaches, career counselors help people already in the workforce to determine and assess their skills, interests and aptitudes and establish career goals. They may offer guidance about resolving professional conflicts or pursuing new careers.

Human Resources Manager

Another career alternative for social workers is human resources manager. This role traditionally is responsible for planning and directing an organization’s administrative functions, including coordination of its benefits and employee retention programs. 

As the leaders of corporate recruiting and hiring and advisers to executives on strategic planning, their work calls for social work-related skills like communication, organization and critical thinking. These skills are also applicable to another crucial human resources management function: serving as a liaison between business leadership and employees.

Community Health Worker

Community health workers are public health professionals who help people get the medical and social services they need. Social work graduates can be a good fit for this career because of its emphasis on advocacy, a key aspect of the social work field. Community health workers use their knowledge and understanding of the location or group they’re serving to ensure that people are connected to appropriate services and that those programs are meeting people’s needs.

Although their work varies according to their specific role, community health workers’ responsibilities often include providing health education and coordinating community development activities. Social work’s transferable skills — including compassion, cultural competence and communication as well as an aptitude for developing relationships — are important for success in this career.

Probation Officer

Aiming to support people who are on probation, probation officers rely on a variety of skills that are also applicable to social work. These professionals visit people who are on probation to ensure that they are following their prescribed treatment plan and that they pose no danger to the community. 

Probation officers need critical thinking to find resources to assist people during their rehabilitation. They rely on their ability to communicate and develop relationships when working with a broad range of people, from the probationers themselves to court officials and treatment professionals. Additionally, because they typically manage multiple cases, probation officers need organizational skills.

Advance in Your Own Social Work Path

Graduates of social work programs, including those awarding M.S.W. degrees, can pursue rewarding careers as social workers. But the versatility of this education lends itself to a variety of other careers as well. Whether you’re interested in advancing your career in social work or pursuing one of these alternative careers for social workers, consider the Virginia Commonwealth University online Master of Social Work Program format

The online program offers you the opportunity to study from anywhere and complete the curriculum at a pace that fits your schedule. You also can take part in field experiences that place you in real-world settings, complementing your online work. Discover how VCU’s M.S.W. online format can help you advance your career as a social worker or in a related role.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Korndoerfer, M.A., LPC.*

*Kathleen Korndoerfer, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with over 10 years experience in the fields of mental health and social work. Kathleen currently practices in Colorado and specializes in the treatment of PTSD & trauma-related disorders and child and adolescent counseling.

Kathleen Korndoerfer, Licensed Professional Counselor, Montrose, CO, 81401 | Psychology Today