What Does a Social Worker Do?

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023

Social work offers many opportunities in different settings and specialties, especially for professionals with a master’s degree. Social workers work in schools, hospitals, outpatient services, nursing care facilities, and government agencies. They provide a variety of services depending on their setting and their client’s needs.

Social workers benefit from working in a growing field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 9% employment growth rate for all social workers from 2021-31, outpacing the average growth for other fields. Job prospects look particularly good for healthcare social workers, as the demand increases for social workers qualified to provide treatment services.

Though the field offers a variety of opportunities, new master of social work (MSW) graduates may have difficulty landing their first job in their preferred specialty. According to a report from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), around 16% of graduates surveyed had trouble finding work in their desired settings.

Learn more about social work opportunities, including potential careers, degree paths, and salaries.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social workers create and implement plans to help people and communities meet their needs, such as housing, mental and physical health, food, and safety. Social workers may work with communities, populations, families, groups, or individuals, depending on their license type and interest area. Social workers work with populations such as:

  • Veterans, active military, and their families
  • Older adults
  • Children and families
  • People with chronic health conditions
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • People with mental health or substance misuse conditions

Social workers’ responsibilities include assessing clients’ needs, connecting them with resources, conducting follow-ups, managing case files, and advocating for resources and policy changes. Their responsibilities vary based on their education, license type, and setting.

For example, a licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) may identify populations in need, advocate for resources in their community, and create and implement intervention plans. Yet, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) can assess, diagnose and treat mental health conditions for individual clients.

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Research How to Become a Social Worker by State

Each state sets their social work licensing requirements. In some states, you can pursue licensure with a BSW, while others require a master’s degree. Other requirements include getting the required experience and passing your state’s social work licensure exam.

Where Does a Social Worker Work?

Social workers find positions in schools, family services, local and state government agencies, and ambulatory services. Their daily routines and work settings look different. Some work in offices, while others, such as school social workers, might travel between facilities within a region or district.

Individual and family services, which employ 18% of the workforce, rank highly among the industries that employ the most social workers. About 349,800 of the nation’s total 708,100 social workers serve as child, family, and school social workers.

According to the CSWE survey, 31% of MSW graduates hold jobs at nonprofit organizations. Additionally, 28% of social workers with MSWs land positions in healthcare organizations.

Understanding Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work Practice

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) organizes social work practices into three systems: micro, mezzo, and macro social work. Each system relies on the “person-in-environment (PIE) theory,” which frames how social workers understand and work with the issues clients face in society. While the categories are helpful, social workers might blend their boundaries and work on multiple levels, supporting individuals, groups, and communities.

Micro Social Work

Social workers need at least an MSW and a clinical social work license in their state to practice micro social work. At this level, social workers counsel individuals and groups, create and implement treatment plans, and connect individuals with resources to meet their needs. They diagnose individuals with mental health and substance misuse conditions, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).

Mezzo Social Work

Social workers at the mezzo level work with groups and specific populations such as older adults, children and families, veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and incarcerated individuals. These roles usually need at least an MSW and a state license to practice social work at either the generalist or clinical level. They plan and implement programs, connect clients with resources, and follow up with clients to ensure progress.

Macro Social Work

All social workers can practice at the macro level, no matter what license they have. Macro social workers focus on implementing changes to society in the form of policy changes or community resources that benefit the specific population in which they specialize. They advocate for policy change and community resources, develop and analyze policy, and connect with other social workers to stay up-to-date on best practices in the field.

Entry-Level Social Work Careers

Earning either a bachelor of social work (BSW) or an associate degree in social work (ASW) opens the doors to entry-level social work careers. Graduates who hold an MSW can pursue more advanced positions and higher pay.

Social workers with bachelor’s degrees can find jobs as social and human service assistants, case managers, and social science research assistants. They also work at the macro social work level, influencing the policymakers who create and fund public programs.

Care Coordinator

Care coordinators help clients navigate the healthcare system and help healthcare teams plan care for patients. They explain diagnosis and treatment plans to patients, help patients understand the risks and benefits of taking or refusing treatment, and educate families on patients’ diagnoses. They help with discharge planning and continuity of care by connecting patients to the resources they’ll need when they go home. Care coordinators need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field. They make an average of $50,326 per year, according to Payscale data from June 2023.

Social and Human Service Assistant

Social and human services assistants help social workers identify what kind of assistance clients need, create intervention plans, research services, coordinate resources, and help clients fill out paperwork to apply for services such as food stamps or housing assistance. Social and human services assistants make an average of $41,600 per year, according to BLS data. In some states, you can become a licensed social work associate without a bachelor’s degree or with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than social work.

Residential Counselor

Residential counselors work with people who live in residential facilities, including older adults, people with disabilities, and people with mental health and substance abuse conditions. They provide individual and group counseling, teach clients life skills to help them gain independence, and identify potential issues or crises and try to prevent them. They evaluate clients on a continual basis and make recommendations when clients are ready for discharge. Residential counselors make an average of $42,480 per year, according to Payscale data from June 2023. Some positions may require you to have an LCSW, so you can provide individual and group counseling.

Social Science Research Assistant

Social science research assistants help researchers with administrative tasks. As a social science research assistant, you will collect, document, and analyze data and information, keep up to date on industry knowledge, train other social science assistants, and communicate with peers and supervisors. Social science research assistants make an average of $57,760 per year, according to BLS data. You’ll need a BSW to become a social science research assistant.

Social Work Case Manager

Social work case managers help their clients by creating an intervention plan, connecting their clients to resources, and advocating for their clients. Case managers make an annual average salary of $45,560, according to Payscale data from June 2023. You can become a social work case manager with as little as an associate’s degree in social work, but you may find more career advancement opportunities with a BSW or MSW. You can also get a certification in case management from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) with three years of experience at the bachelor’s or master’s level.

Social Work Careers by Specialty

MSW graduates typically work in specialty fields, such as child and family services, geriatrics, military, and mental health and substance misuse. While most social workers who specialize in specific fields hold an advanced degree, graduates with a bachelor’s degree can also work in niche areas.

Earning the corresponding NASW credential gives a social worker the professional recognition to pursue work in:

  • Case management
  • Gerontology
  • Hospice
  • Palliative care
  • Youth and family services

Most NASW certifications require a master’s degree. However, graduates who hold a bachelor’s degree can qualify for certain NASW certifications in gerontology and case management. These credentials let employers know that social workers meet industry standards.

Child and Family Social Workers

Child and family social workers help protect at-risk children and support families. According to the BLS, these professionals make a median annual salary of $50,390.

These social workers respond to crises and help families access services, such as food stamps and housing opportunities. Becoming a child and family social worker often requires a BSW or MSW along with a state license.

School Social Worker

School districts often hire school social workers to identify and assist students. These professionals partner with teachers and parents to create plans that address any emotional, behavioral, social, or academic issues.

Licensed school social workers often hold a master’s degree and a Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) certification from NASW. Yet, specific requirements vary by state. According to Payscale data from May 2023, school social workers earn an average annual salary of $51,780. Most CSWE-surveyed school social workers work in elementary schools and preschools.

Mental Health Social Worker

You’ll need at least an MSW and an LCSW to become a mental health social worker. In this role, you’ll work with people who have substance misuse and mental health conditions. You’ll counsel individuals and groups, connect clients to resources such as 12-step programs, use the DSM-5 to diagnose individuals, and follow up with clients to make sure their situation improves. Mental health and substance abuse social workers make an annual mean salary of $63,700, according to Payscale data from June 2023.

Substance Misuse Social Worker

Substance misuse social workers can find employment at rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and detention centers. In these settings, professionals assess, counsel, and create interventions to help individuals with alcohol and substance use problems. They make an average salary of $43,130 per year, according to Payscale data from June 2023.

Healthcare Social Worker

Healthcare social workers provide information and services to make navigating healthcare easier for their clients. They help people come to terms with a medical diagnosis or educate doctors and healthcare professionals about a patient’s needs.

Healthcare social workers make a median annual wage of $60,840, according to the BLS. Besides client-based services, healthcare social workers can also influence healthcare policy and advocate for patients’ rights.

Clinical Social Worker

Clinical social workers can practice at any level of social work, from big-picture advocacy and policy change to diagnosing and treating individuals with substance misuse and mental health conditions.

You’ll need an MSW and an LCSW, or your state’s equivalent, to become a mental health or substance misuse social worker or work one-on-one with individuals with mental health conditions. As an LCSW, you can make an average of $62,690 per year, according to Payscale data from June 2023. Other skills include patient assessment, patient counseling, project management or people management.

Social and Community Service Manager

You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree to become a social and community service manager, but some employers may require a master’s degree. As a social and community service manager, you’ll identify necessary programs and services, suggest and implement changes to existing programs, and advocate and raise awareness about the services in your community. You’ll oversee programs to make sure they meet their objectives.

Social and community service managers juggle multiple tasks, such as writing grant proposals, managing administrative staff, and monitoring the success of outreach work. They make a median annual salary of $74,000, according to BLS data from May 2021.

Social Work Teacher

Social work professors develop curriculums, teach classes at the postsecondary level, help students form their dissertations and research projects, and conduct their own research. They also help supervise students during their field placements and may also oversee departments and manage other professors.

If you want to become a social work professor, skills in team leadership, project management, research analysis, clinical research, and grant writing may help you stand out. Pay for social work teachers depends on the setting. They make an annual average salary of $75,390 and $74,790 at four-year and two-year colleges, respectively, according to BLS.

Frequently Asked Questions

What field of social work pays the most?

The federal government pays social workers higher-than-average salaries compared to social workers in other industries, reports the BLS. Social workers in the federal government earn over $20,000 in average annual salary than other social workers.

Why is social work a good career?

Becoming a social worker offers a chance to enter an in-demand field. The BLS projects social work jobs to grow by 9% from 2021-2031, which is faster than average. The career gives you the opportunity to help others and provides upward mobility through advanced degrees and credentials.

How long does it take to complete an MSW?

You’ll need 30-60 credits to graduate with an MSW degree. You can graduate with fewer credits if you got your bachelor’s degree in social (BSW). It takes 1-3 to earn your degree, depending on whether you study full-time or part-time and enroll in the summer semester.

What is the difference between social work licensure and social work certification?

Becoming a licensed social worker allows individuals to use the social worker title and practice social work under state law. The process often requires additional post-graduate education and a passing score on the Association of Social Work Boards exam. Certification, such as those offered through NASW, is optional and gives social workers recognition in specific specialties like case management or education.