Whether working toward a promotion, seeking a better work-life balance, or seeking to learn and experience new things, many professionals switch careers at one point or another. In the past few years alone, millions of Americans have done just that.
A survey from Pew Research Center reports that approximately 53% of employees who quit a job in 2021 shifted to a different field or occupation. The report cites several reasons for the transitions, ranging from low wages, to a lack of career growth opportunities, to feeling undervalued.
With its flexibility, various career paths and multidisciplinary nature, a career change to social work may be ideal for individuals who are seeking rewarding work. Earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.), can equip graduates with the skills and knowledge to excel in their career path in social work.
Why Become a Social Worker?
Social workers often work with individuals who don’t have a solid financial or social support system. According to a report by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), nearly 70% of new Master of Social Work graduates reported over 50% of their clients fell below the federal poverty level. Social workers also provide support to individuals with mental or behavioral health issues, including those struggling with substance misuse.
Working with these vulnerable populations can sometimes be challenging for social workers, so why become a social worker? Because of the role’s many rewards. The social work profession focuses on empowering people and enhancing human well-being. Social workers support society’s most vulnerable, providing pathways to deal with various issues.
Social workers advocate for social justice, and that’s a fulfilling mission for many. According to the National Association of Social Workers, the top social priorities for social workers include advocating for voting rights, criminal justice/juvenile justice, environmental justice, immigration, and economic justice.
Another reason people choose to become social workers is that the work is often dynamic and involves stimulating and satisfying activities, like meeting new people, interacting with communities, teaching individuals and working in varied settings. These are among the many benefits of being a social worker.
Career Paths in Social Work
For those who want to make a difference in people’s lives, particularly individuals and communities in greatest need of help, a career change to social work can be an opportunity to find fulfilling work across various career paths.
Social workers can specialize in serving a specific population. For example, some focus on helping individuals cope with life challenges such as substance misuse and mental health conditions. Others may choose a path focusing on child and family issues such as domestic conflicts or child abuse. Another career path in social work involves helping individuals facing economic issues such as inadequate housing and unemployment.
Their specific work setting may determine a social worker’s particular role. For example, social workers often are employed in public agencies, schools, hospitals, health clinics, prisons, senior centers, military organizations and veterans’ centers. Social workers can also work in corporate environments and private practice.
Additional career paths in social work include opportunities to work in research; advocacy that focuses on improving services; or participating in social services systems design, planning and policy development.
Types of Social Workers
Different career paths in social work enable individuals to align their careers with their interests, from working with children and families to overseeing the administration and management of social work services. The ability to tailor a career around a personal passion can make a career change to social work attractive to those looking to chart a new professional path. The following are examples of types of social workers.
Child Social Workers
Child social workers help children and adolescents struggling with issues related to their development such as physical or mental health challenges, behavior problems, or family issues. These social workers develop prevention and intervention programs to help children cope with issues. Child social workers also intervene in situations of abuse or neglect, and give support and guidance to help individuals through difficult situations.
Family Social Workers
Family social workers deliver a range of social services to families in need. They intervene in family dynamics to help family members better understand each other and resolve conflicts. They also help families access the resources they need such as counseling and referrals.
School Social Workers
School social workers help promote a positive school climate, improve student performance, and develop better relationships between students, teachers and parents. School social workers assess students’ social, emotional and behavioral needs, and strategize interventions and case management services that aim to meet those needs. They play a role in developing school-wide programs and policies such as bullying prevention and school safety initiatives.
Gerontological Social Workers
Gerontological social workers provide services and resources to ensure that older adults can age healthily and safely. They help clients with long-term care planning, health care advocacy and financial assistance. They also support family members and caregivers, allowing them to cope with the challenges of caring for an older adult.
Gerontological social workers are skilled in crisis intervention, end-of-life planning and transitioning patients from home to a retirement or assisted living facility.
Health Care Social Workers
Health care social workers are an invaluable resource for patients and their families, providing a range of services that can help improve their quality of life. They deliver emotional and practical support, including offering advice on how to handle medical decisions, and provide counseling and therapy.
In addition, health care social workers help people access resources like insurance, disability benefits and government assistance. They also help patients navigate their health care systems and find the right doctors, specialists and other needed services.
Mental Health and Substance Use Social Workers
Mental health social workers treat mental illness and other mental health issues. They provide therapy and develop treatment plans to help clients address their mental health needs, often in collaboration with doctors and other health care providers. Mental health social workers also help people develop skills and access resources to manage their mental health issues. They provide a safe and supportive environment where individuals can explore their issues and learn coping strategies.
Substance use social workers provide essential services to people struggling with substance misuse and addiction. They offer various services to ensure individuals can access resources to address their substance use challenges. Mental health and substance use social workers are often licensed clinical social workers.
Developmental Disabilities Social Workers
Developmental disabilities social workers help individuals with disabilities access the support and resources they need to live their best lives. They provide individualized assistance by evaluating a client’s strengths and needs, helping create realistic goals and plans, and connecting individuals with appropriate community resources. Developmental disabilities social workers also advocate for clients, ensuring their rights are respected and upheld.
Advocacy and Community Organizing
Social workers in advocacy and community organizing focus on empowering and mobilizing people to improve their circumstances and create positive social change. They may focus on specific populations such as older adults, children and people with disabilities, or they may take a broader approach. They also strive to spur social change through activism, policy advocacy, public education and advancing legislation.
Administration and Management
Social workers in administration and management oversee the development, implementation and evaluation of social service programs, including administering budgets and policies. They also manage the personnel involved in the programs, including hiring, training and supervising staff. Excellent organizational and communication skills and an understanding of the social service system are essential to succeed in this role.
Social Work Job Outlook
Growing demand for social workers presents another compelling reason to consider a career change to social work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of social workers will grow by 9% between 2021 and 2031, adding approximately 64,000 new jobs.
However, the social work job outlook can vary based on the type of social work. According to BLS data, there will be more demand for health care, mental health and substance use social workers from 2021 to 2031, with projected growth of 11%.
The BLS reports a median annual salary of $50,390 for social workers as of May 2021. Salaries can also vary based on the type of social work. For example, health care social workers earned a median annual salary of $60,840, while child, family and school social workers earned $49,150.
Those who choose to pursue a career in social work can benefit from earning an M.S.W. According to the Council on Social Work Education, the majority of recent M.S.W. graduates were employed by September of the same year after spring graduation. Additionally, 80% of those who searched for jobs were either already employed or had a job offer.
Transition to a Career in Social Work
Why did many people transition to a new career during the pandemic? The data shows individuals took the time to contemplate what they were passionate about, and what they needed in a job and employer. After making a career change, 56% reported receiving higher pay, 53% reported having more advancement prospects and an easier time juggling work and family responsibilities, and 50% said they had more flexibility, according to Pew.
For those looking to impact people’s lives for the better, the transition to social work can help them achieve that noble goal. An advanced education, like the Virginia Commonwealth University online Master of Social Work Program format, can help individuals become social workers. The program focuses on leadership, inclusivity, cultural competence, and implementing programs and policies that lead to measurable results.
Learn how VCU’s M.S.W. program can help you advance your social work career or begin a new one.