Careers in Social Work Top Specialties & Emerging Careers in Social Work

Social work is a rapidly growing field that promises variety and challenges to those who choose to enter it. Social workers report high job satisfaction from helping people in need, and they continue to be in high demand. With a wide array of careers available, those interested in this field can choose the right path by finding out about some of the different specializations and what they entail, as well as future trends in the area of social work.

Career Paths in Social Work

Social workers are found in many different settings; hospitals, schools, correctional facilities and government agencies all need qualified people to provide aid to clients. Social workers may work with children, the elderly, substance abuse victims, people with mental illnesses, or even entire communities. With so many choices, individuals can focus on a concentration that is tailored to their preferences for the types of clients they help, what kinds of aid they give, and where they work. Common social work concentrations include children and families, mental health, healthcare, community, and addiction and substance abuse.

Children and Families

This concentration focuses on helping children who may be vulnerable or at risk due to various circumstances. These social workers apply concepts in risk assessment, counseling and case management to improve a client’s quality of life at home or in school. Working with foster families, group homes and adoption agencies also are covered under this concentration.

  • School Social Worker

    School social workers help teachers and parents recognize and address academic or social issues students may be facing. A teacher who suspects there may be problems at home, or a parent who notices a sudden change in his or her child’s behavior may work with the school social worker to find the source of the problem and develop a plan to fix it.

  • Child Protection Services (CPS) Worker

    CPS workers help ensure the safety of children who may be at risk, or who are transitioning into or out of foster care or adoptive homes. Helping families create healthy environments for children is an essential part of this career.

Mental Health

Emotional, mental and behavioral disorders are examined in this concentration, with a focus on offering counseling and helping clients develop coping strategies. Social workers with mental health knowledge assess factors affecting their clients’ conditions, such as trauma, grief, health problems, addiction issues and socioeconomic status, in order to facilitate treatment and help clients better function in everyday life.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

    Licensed clinical social workers specialize in mental health. They provide counseling and therapy to their clients and may aid in practical areas such as job placement and housing arrangements.

  • Gerontological Social Worker

    These social workers help elderly clients and their families. Gerontological social workers may provide information and guidance about home healthcare, meal delivery programs, assisted living facilities or potential health complications.

  • Military Social Worker

    Military social workers help individuals deal with the anxieties of deployment or active duty, cope with physical and psychological trauma after service, and rejoin civilian life. They also work with military families who are dealing with the absence of a family member.

  • Mental Health Social Worker

    Mental health social workers often work in clinical settings to help clients who have mental disorders or substance abuse problems, or who have been victims of violence. These social workers help create treatment and coping plans for clients.

  • Correctional Treatment Specialist

    After people are released from prison and are no longer on parole, correctional treatment specialists may work with them to create rehabilitation plans and help them re-enter society.

Healthcare

Assessing the emotional and mental effects that medical diagnoses may have on patients is an important part of this concentration. These professionals identify the emotional and financial needs of their clients, work with doctors to help clients and their families make necessary lifestyle adjustments, and provide counseling to aid in the process.

  • Gerontological Social Worker

    These social workers help elderly clients and their families. Gerontological social workers may provide information and guidance about home healthcare, meal delivery programs, assisted living facilities or potential health complications.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

    Licensed clinical social workers specialize in mental health. They provide counseling and therapy to their clients and may aid in practical areas such as job placement and housing arrangements.

  • Hospice Social Worker

    Hospice social workers help clients who are dying, as well as their families, cope with their situations. They may connect clients and their families with grief counselors or support groups.

  • Public Health Social Worker

    Public health social workers work for government agencies to improve the general well-being of their communities, providing residents with information and tools to live healthy lives physically and socially.

Community

To help groups of people take action and solve problems within their communities, these social workers may work with small groups, like employees or residents of a particular building, or large groups, like neighborhoods or entire communities, to bring about collective change and health. Community organization, grant writing, program development and policy analysis are focal points of this concentration.

  • Public Health Social Worker

    Public health social workers work for government agencies to improve the general well-being of their communities, providing residents with information and tools to live healthy lives physically and socially.

  • Social and Community Service Manager

    While the specific roles of social and community services managers depend on the size of the organizations they work for, their primary goal is to assess the needs of a community and help it develop and carry out a plan to meet those needs.

Addiction and Substance Abuse

Understanding the broader picture of their clients’ substance abuse—the communities in which they live, the resources available to them, their religion or spiritual backgrounds, and other personal and social influences—is the focus of social workers who specialize in addiction and substance abuse. They address the underlying issues contributing to substance abuse and help them develop plans to recover.

  • School Social Worker

    School social workers help teachers and parents recognize and address academic or social issues students may be facing. A teacher who suspects there may be problems at home, or a parent who notices a sudden change in his or her child’s behavior may work with the school social worker to find the source of the problem and develop a plan to fix it.

  • Child Protection Services (CPS) Worker

    CPS workers help ensure the safety of children who may be at risk, or who are transitioning into or out of foster care or adoptive homes. Helping families create healthy environments for children is an essential part of this career.

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

    Licensed clinical social workers specialize in mental health. They provide counseling and therapy to their clients and may aid in practical areas such as job placement and housing arrangements.

  • Correctional Treatment Specialist

    After people are released from prison and are no longer on parole, correctional treatment specialists may work with them to create rehabilitation plans and help them re-enter society.

  • Mental Health Social Worker

    Mental health social workers often work in clinical settings to help clients who have mental disorders or substance abuse problems, or who have been victims of violence. These social workers help create treatment and coping plans for clients.

Outlook & Salary Potential in Social Work

While employment growth for social workers depends on the specialty and geographical location, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the overall field will grow faster than the average for all occupations. Even though average earnings for social workers can vary markedly—nearly $50,000 separates the top earners from the bottom—chances of landing a job in the social work field are good. Between 2014 and 2024, overall job growth is projected at 12 percent, but particular specialties may see substantially higher increases. Aging populations, increased use of substance abuse treatment programs to replace jail time, climbing student enrollment, and budget constraints of various institutions are all part of the equation.

Child, Family, and School Social Worker Average salary $42,120 Growth outlook 12 percent
Healthcare Social Worker Average salary $51,930 Growth outlook 19 percent
Correctional Treatment Specialist Average salary $49,060 Growth outlook 4 percent
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker Average salary $41,380 Growth outlook 19 percent
Social and Community Service Manager Average salary $62,740 Growth outlook 10 percent

Social Work Salary by State

In addition to specialty area, location plays a large part in determining the salaries of social workers. The following states offer the highest median wages for social workers in the U.S.

  • 1California: $67,860
  • 2Connecticut: $64,540
  • 3District of Columbia: $64,390
  • 4Nevada: $62, 300
  • 5Oregon: $61,500
  • 6Rhode Island: $59,990
  • 7New York: $58,590
  • 8New Jersey: $58,220
  • 9Massachusetts: $57,740
  • 10New Hampshire: $57, 630

Top Skills for a Career in Social Work

Social workers often work in stressful and highly emotional circumstances, so it is important that they have strong professional skills to effectively guide clients through tough situations. Social workers address a range of needs for a variety of clients, but certain skills are necessary for social workers of all specializations. These include:

Case Management

Case management is the organizational foundation of social work. Strong case management skills facilitate communication between social workers at a single institution or among several institutions, or between social workers and other aid providers. This ensures clients get the most comprehensive service.

Counseling

As many clients need advice and guidance, counseling is a vital skill in social work. This may mean helping clients cope with life changes, or working with them to create realistic goals and plans to meet them.

Long-term Care

Many social work cases, like addiction counseling or hospice social work, require skills in long-term care. Clients and their families rely on social workers who can not only help them plan for the future, but also check in periodically and assist along the way.

roblem Solving

Being able to recognize client problems and find solutions to them is an integral part of social work. Social workers need to be able to combine research, practical methods and innovation to help their clients.

Advocacy

Much of being a social worker involves representing clients and making sure they have access to the care and resources they need. They act as liaisons between clients and various sources of aid, asserting their clients’ rights to assistance and respect.

Certifications & Licenses

All social workers must be licensed or certified, although these vary from state to state. Certain requirements, however, stand across the board, and optional certifications are available as well.

Top 5 Certifications or Licenses for a Career in Social Work

  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Accreditation

    Most social workers need to graduate from an institution accredited by this national nonprofit organization in order to become licensed.

  • Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Exam

    Comprised of social work regulatory boards, the nonprofit ASWB administers licensure exams for all states.

  • Clinical Experience and Exam

    About 3,000 hours, or approximately two years, of supervised clinical experience is needed to become a licensed clinical social worker. Prospective LCSWs also need to pass an exam.

  • Advanced Practice Specialty Credentials

    The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a variety of optional credentials that social workers can get in various specialties, like military, gerontology, youth and family, addictions and case management, among others.

  • Professional Social Work Credentials

    5. NASW also offers two leadership credentials, the Academy of Certified Social Workers credential and the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work credential, to NASW members.

Emerging Careers in Social Work

The overall job outlook for social work is positive, with certain areas poised to make even more rapid advances than others. People are always going to need skilled and empathetic individuals to help them through difficult times, but the number and types of people seeking social workers, and the tools used to help those clients, are likely to change. Social workers will have plenty of careers to choose from as industries and fields outside the realm of traditional social work begin to tap into their resources, and as mainstay specializations within the field see increased demand. Here are some up-and-coming fields in social work:

Business

Corporations and nonprofits alike are starting to see the benefits of hiring social workers for their businesses. Social workers have a wide range of skills to offer, not the least of which is reaching out and making genuine connections with people. Not only can social workers help make places of business safe and comfortable for employees, they can also help companies build relationships with their communities. Business social workers help companies work with their clients, employees and communities to establish best practices. They can also help businesses with social responsibility, whether that means fostering a diverse workplace, devising ways to improve the mental and physical health of employees, or reducing the business’s environmental impact. All of these elements add up to improved financial well-being for businesses and improved social well-being for the communities in which they exist.

Gerontological

Gerontological social work is already a well-established field, and it shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. Projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show that by 2030, people aged 65 and older will account for more than 20 percent of the population. As the baby boomer population ages, demand for social workers who are knowledgeable in gerontics, as well as hospice and palliative care, is expected to increase. In addition, according to Payscale, social workers who are skilled in geriatrics earn 11 percent more than those who are not.

Veterinary

Veterinary social work takes the study of human and animal relationships and uses it to help clients in a variety of ways. As research shows the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, veterinary social work is beginning to gain recognition as a distinct specialization of social work. Social workers who specialize in veterinary or animal-assisted work identify which clients are good candidates for this type of therapy, and what specific methods are appropriate for them. Veterinary social workers also have comprehensive knowledge of grief and loss, as well as managing compassion fatigue, and may work in veterinary clinics to help both employees and clients cope with the loss of pets. In addition, veterinary social workers study the links between human and animal violence, which can provide insights into other aspects of clients’ lives. As more schools add veterinary social work specializations to their Master’s of Social Work curricula, this niche field has the potential to grow significantly.