In any venue where people regularly need help with meeting the challenges of living in modern society, you’ll find social workers. Checking in with at-risk kids and elderly clients; helping the homeless or families mired in poverty to tap into assistance programs; giving hope and counseling to victims of abuse or patients facing dire medical conditions… social workers represent what is best in humanity, at times when their clients are facing some of the worst.
It’s a career that calls for caring, engaged, and determined individuals with the right background and education to make a difference. And it’s one that is in great demand in a county where people are increasingly dealing with crises related to housing, healthcare, addiction, and poverty.
Social workers today have new tools at their disposal for helping with some of the worst and most chronic societal issues. Applied behavior analysis offers clinically proven, effective techniques for handling some of the most difficult issues that social workers have to deal with. Whether you are using functional behavior assessments to determine the most effective interventions for domestic abusers, or implement a token economy and strong group support system to build self-esteem and help chronic drug addicts find something to live for outside of their addiction, ABA may revolutionize the social work field over the course of your career.
Social Worker Job Description
Social workers have a thousand paths to helping individuals facing problems. They may focus on working primarily with children and families, in healthcare, or with addicts and mental health patients, among other specialty areas.
Different levels of responsibility, a clinical or community focus, and the level of independence they have in providing specialized services are associated with different state licensing levels, and can usually be earned successively. The idea is that you can start off with a bachelor’s degrees in social work (BSW) and work as a supervised associate in a role like community outreach, and eventually earn a master’s in social work (MSW) and become licensed as an independent clinical practitioner where you provide one-on-one and group counseling services on your own.
There are so many entry points into the profession and paths to take, you’re sure to find one that matches your career goals perfectly.
In any of those areas, the daily work of a social worker can involve identifying people and communities in need of assistance, assessing the level of help required, or actually diving in and offering that assistance directly through counseling and other interventions. It could even mean offering some very basic help that many of us take for granted, like driving a client to an appointment with their doctor when they don’t have other transportation, or helping a family fill out forms for supplemental nutritional assistance support.
Speaking of filling out forms, most social workers spend a lot of time behind a desk doing just that, whether it’s to assist a client or maintain their own records. Many social assistance programs have stringent documentation requirements, and caseloads can be stacked so high for social workers in high-needs locations that maintaining good records is critical to keeping track of everything and ensuring that each client has their needs met.
Social workers may also have a lot of research and investigative work in their daily roles. Discovering new ways to help clients or the best approaches to handling tragic situations is an ever-evolving part of the work.
Advocacy is the watchword of the social work field, both on the individual level and for more general and universal forms of social justice. It’s not unusual to find social workers testifying to government committees about the conditions of homeless or elderly populations within a city, or coordinating petition drives for increased assistance for immigrant communities.
Finally, handling emergencies is part and parcel of the position for many social workers. Late night phone calls from desperate clients are not uncommon; weekend responses to mental health or other emergencies comes with the territory. Many social workers gladly take on tasks outside their assigned job descriptions because they know their real role is to help improve lives, whatever it takes.
How To Become a Social Worker
Social work has the potential to be life-saving, and even when the stakes aren’t that high, there is still significant involvement with the lives of clients.
For these reasons, there are high bars to clear in both education and licensing in order to become a social worker in the United States.
Getting the Right Education to Become a Social Worker
No matter what level of practice you aspire to, education will be a big part of what distinguishes you from any other well-meaning individual out trying to help the disadvantaged.
A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum you’ll need even for entry-level positions in the field. Typically, you’ll want a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), but employers may also accept degrees in psychology, human services, sociology, or other related fields.
Like any bachelor’s program, these degrees will combine a basic level of common liberal arts educational subjects with subject-specific classes such as ethics, behaviorism, sociology, and research. Most BSW programs also incorporate practical field work and seminars that allow you to get hands-on experience delivering services under supervised practice with real social service agencies.
For many social worker jobs, and particularly those with advanced licensing requirements, you’ll need to get a master’s in social work (MSW). These programs double-down on the social work-specific courses, offering advanced education in research subjects, the history of social services and social welfare, and clinical approaches to social work. The field experience at this level is more independent and more involved, allowing you to hone your techniques.
Regardless of the degree level you choose to pursue, you’ll want to make sure that you select a program that is fully accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation is required for becoming licensed as a social worker anywhere in the country, so it’s not a box you don’t want to tick for your degree.
Becoming Licensed in Social Work
All states require licensing for certain kinds of social workers, but the specific requirements and levels of practice that are regulated may differ.
Some states have basic social worker licenses (LSW or LBSW) that require only a bachelor’s degree and passing an exam, as is the case in Iowa, for example. Others, like Montana, don’t license non-clinical social workers at all, but require a master’s degree for any licensed role since they always imply clinical assessment and counseling work.
All states require some sort of formalized testing for licensure, and most use the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) national examination for the respective category of license:
- Advanced Generalist
States also use written tests on local laws and ethical standards as part of the licensing process.
In most states, you will also have to complete additional coursework and accumulate a certain amount of post-MSW supervised experience before you can become independently licensed.
The Option to Become Nationally Certified
Certification through a national certifying body is a purely voluntary option that can help with developing your expertise in the field of social work, but it shouldn’t be confused with mandatory state licensing.
Although it’s not required for licensure, many social workers do opt to become ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Workers)-certified by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The voluntary credential requires:
- A master’s degree from a CSWE-accredited school
- A current NASW membership
- Two years of documented postgraduate supervised social work employment
- Twenty hours of relevant continuing education
- Adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics and Standards for Continuing Professional Education
Will Getting a BCBA Help You as a Social Worker?
With applied behavior analysis having very useful and effective applications in the field of social work, there’s been a lot of interest in in learning more about it, and even becoming certified with the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) credential through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
Earning the credential requires a master’s degree specifically in ABA, or otherwise education, or psychology with a concentration in ABA in order to qualify to take the exam required to earn the credential. Traditionally, the only way to qualify for both social work licensure and a BCBA was to take on a dual master’s, one from a CSWE-accredited program, and the other with an ABAI (Association for Behavioral Analysis International) Verified Course Sequence (VCS) that includes the right mix of ABA courses, as required by the BACB.
But that’s all changing in 2022, as the BACB is opening up the exam process to those holding master’s degrees outside the ABA, psychology, and education fields.
A committee of subject matter experts appointed by the Board found that it would be beneficial to the ABA community to welcome candidates from more diverse backgrounds and working in fields where ABA is highly relevant – and social work is at the top of that list.
If you already hold a master’s in social work, or any number of other fields, you’ll be able to satisfy the education requirements for the BCBA through a post-graduate VCS certificate program in ABA. In fact, some schools are already beginning to allow enrollment in those programs for students with MSWs.
Doing so will give you another level of knowledge and skills to use in your day-to-day tasks as a social worker… and make you that much more valuable to your clients and employer.
Typical Salary for Social Workers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the median pay level for social workers in the U.S. was $49,470 annually, or $23,79 per hour. In the top ten percent of the profession, social workers could make more than $81,400, though.
Pay can vary considerably by both location and specialization, however. Social workers employed by hospitals had a median salary of $60,100 per year, while those in individual and family services made only $41,810. With more than half of social workers being employed by government agencies, it’s also worth noting that those working for local government had a median of $54,430, while those working for state agencies averaged $48,590.
Washington D.C. led the nation in salaries, with a median of $82,900, followed by Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The highest employment levels, however, are found in California, New York, and Illinois… all of which have a better than average median salary of over $61,000 annually.
While the job demands are high and the pay may not rival what private sector master’s degree graduates command in other industries, there is a kind of personal satisfaction in becoming a social worker that deliver compensation that no other job can.
Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2018. Figures represent accumulated data for all areas of employment for Social Workers (https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm). BLS salary data represents state and MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
All salary and job growth data accessed in November 2019.