Career Diversity in Social Work

The social work profession provides a wide array of professional employment opportunities. This page provides a brief overview of the many kinds of social work jobs. For information on specific openings, try the social work job links page. The Encyclopedia of Social Work lists 50 different problems areas frequently experienced by persons in our society. The profession of social work offers a wide range of services to meet these needs. The many career options in social work can be roughly organized into fields of practice.

A field of practice describes a group of practice settings that deal with similar client problems. Each field may have numerous agencies (settings). Social work has the unique ability to change jobs with radically different duties, yet the practitioner can still be referred to as a social worker.

The following 13 categories are considered the major fields of practice for social workers:

1. Mental Health Services
Approximately 40% of all employed social workers work in this area. This includes both inpatient and outpatient services. It also includes work with the mentally ill, as well as those clients with developmental disabilities. Of the 40% employment, approximately one-third have their MSW degree, while approximately 10% have BSW degrees.

2. Medical Health Care
Approximately 18% of all employed social workers represent the health care field. This includes work in hospitals, health clinics, home health, and with private physicians. The large majority of these social workers have their MSW degree.

3. Child Welfare
This field of social work may be the oldest field represented. Approximately 15% of all employed social workers are in areas of adoption, foster care, residential care, protective services, and home support (daycare and/or homemaker services). There is also a good mix of BSW and MSW level social workers in this field.

4. Family Services
Most people might be surprised that the primary profession that deals with family issues is social work. Approximately 11% of all employed social workers are in this area. This includes counseling (casework, group work, therapy), family life education (preventive services), and family planning (issues of reproduction, contraception, and abortion).

5. Aging
For over 50 years, the U.S. has been preparing for an aging society. The number of Americans age 55 and older will almost double by 2030 – from 60 million today (21 percent of the total US population) to 107.6 million (31 percent of the population).

By most accounts, careers in aging are going to be among the next big things in the 21st Century workplace. Equal challenge and opportunity exists for students of gerontology, and those academic institutions and other workforce entities that train them for these new careers in aging.  Job opportunities can be found in a number of settings, and span the wide breadth of the long-term care continuum. This continuum includes working with older adults in their own homes, in an array of community-based services, as well as in long-term care environments such as assisted living and nursing homes. Social workers in the field of aging are employed by hospice organizations, hospitals, senior centers, adults day care and intergenerational programs, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and planning agencies such as Area Agencies on Aging.

6. Schools
Approximately 3% of all employed social workers function in school settings. Most have their MSW degrees. There is great variability of school employment for social workers, depending on the state in which the worker is employed. Some states may require teaching certificates, while other states may hire depending on the ratio of students to worker. Individual, group, and family counseling are common treatment modalities here.

7. Substance Abuse
The statistic of 3% may appear small, as many social workers in this field may actually get counted in the general health care services. A good mix of BSW and MSW level workers are included here. Settings may include hospitals, group homes, and other residential facilities. Often the social worker is also required to obtain a CAC (Certified Addictions Counselor). Much group therapy is done in programmatic settings.

8. Income Maintenance
Approximately 2% of all employed social workers are in this field. Generally, this field can be divided into two categories: Public welfare and Social Insurances. Public welfare services may include AFDC, food stamps, general assistance programs, and supplemental security income. Social insurances include such programs as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workman’s compensation. Along with the field of aging, this is the largest area for BSW level workers.

9. Corrections
Almost 2% of employed social workers are in the area of corrections. Due to the increase of prisons, however, this number may be on the rise. Various levels of prisons, jails, and probation services are common settings in this field. Since a degree in Criminal Justice is more specific to this area, a social worker may find this to be a unique setting in terms of environment and philosophy, possibly even contradictory to social work training. However, the potential here is expanding.

10. Education and Training
Due to extensive educational requirements, only 1% of social workers represent this field. Whereas the MSW used to be considered the terminal degree in this profession, now more programs offer Ph.D. and DSW degrees in social work. Consequently, most universities now require a doctoral degree in social work or a related field in order to teach. Still, many experienced MSW practitioners continue to teach in tenure track and adjunct positions.

11. Occupational Social Work
This field includes work in major corporations and private practice settings. Direct services may be provided to employees, consumer groups, and management. Contract consultative services are often utilized here. Although the percentage of social workers employed here is less than 1%, this number may rise due to increased opportunities, stricter licensing laws, and third-party reimbursement.

12. Group and Youth Services
This field includes such settings as Boy/Girl Scouts, Camp Fire, YMCA, YWCA, and various agencies under the umbrella of United Way. Less that 1% of social workers are employed in such settings, as traditionally, a specific social work degree has not been required. More BSWs work in this field than MSWs, although the latter perform contract and consultation work at times.

13. Neighborhood and Community Services
This last field also represents less than 1% of employed social workers. It also is the best field that represents macro social work. This field has a long history, dating back to the turn of the 20th century with Jane Addams. Organizational skills, planning skills, and analytical development skills are required tools here. Persuasive speaking and advocacy become important skills as well. This field is a good example of "the sociology of social work."