Social Worker: Education Overview for a Career in Social Work
Social workers help individuals cope with economic, family and health problems. They're employed in a variety of settings, such as healthcare clinics or government agencies. While social workers spend most of their time working with clients, they may also develop policies and conduct research to drive social advancements.
Education Overview for Social Workers
Becoming a social worker begins with completion of a bachelor's degree program in social work. While undergraduate degrees may be sufficient, some social workers pursue advanced education through graduate degree programs. In either case, social workers are required to obtain state licensure to practice in the profession.
Social workers are generally required to hold bachelor's degrees to obtain entry-level employment in the field. Most complete Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs; however, students may also choose to study a related field, such as psychology or sociology. Aspiring social workers may consider attending BSW programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, the nationally recognized agency that sets standards for social work education programs.
BSW programs equip students with the theoretical knowledge and general practice skills needed for entry into the profession. Students may complete introductory coursework in the history, goals and practice of social work. Core courses tend to include social policy, human behavior and diversity. In the final year of a study, students participate in field work, gaining hands-on training under the supervision of experienced social workers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers employed in schools, healthcare facilities and clinics are often required to hold Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees (www.bls.gov). Compared to bachelor's degree programs, MSW programs tend to have a heavier focus on research and theory in the field. Students typically focus their studies on a concentration of social work, such as clinical or administrative practice. These programs also incorporate advanced practicums, which provide students with intensive training in the field.
All states have some form of licensing standards for social workers. The BLS reports that most states require clinical social workers to complete either two years or 3,000 hours of supervised experience to become licensed. Some states require applicants to pass an examination. Social workers may be required to renew licensure on a regular basis by meeting continuing education standards.
Salary and Employment Outlook
According to the BLS, job opportunities for social workers were expected to increase 25%, overall, between 2010 and 2020. Healthcare social workers could see a slightly faster job growth of 34%, while mental health and substance abuse social workers could see employment rise 31%. The least favorable projections were for child, family and school social workers. Professionals specializing in this field were expected to experience a 20% increase in job opportunities, which was still faster than the national average for all occupations.
The BLS reports that salary will also depend on social workers' specialization area. Mental health and substance abuse social workers, for instance, earned a median annual salary of $39,980. This figure was slightly lower than child, family and school social workers' median annual wage of $41,530, and well behind healthcare social workers' median annual earnings, which were $49,830 as of May 2012.
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