Important Job Skills Social Workers Need

Image by Jiaqi Zhou © The Balance 2019

There is a fast-growing demand for social workers and other experts who provide social services to individuals and families.

Social workers help people cope with, manage, and solve problems in their everyday lives. In addition to problem-solving, clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

There are several different types of social workers, specializing in different areas, including: child and family; school; mental health and substance abuse; geriatric; and healthcare resources.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

The day-to-day responsibilities vary depending on the role, however all social workers help people manage challenges in their lives. Job responsibilities include:

  • Identifying individuals, families, and communities in need of assistance
  • Assessing clients’ needs
  • Responding to crisis situations
  • Developing and reviewing service plans
  • Developing and evaluating programs and services
  • Researching, referring, and advocating for community resources
  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges
  • Following up with clients
  • Addressing legal issues, assisting with hearings, and providing testimony

Social Worker Education Requirements

For some positions, a bachelor’s degree (BSW) in social work is the minimum requirement for getting hired. Most social workers in mid-to-higher-level positions have master’s degrees in social work or counseling.

The requirements for clinical social workers are a master’s degree (MSW) in social work and two years' experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers must be licensed by their state.

Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Median Salary

The median annual wage for social workers was $49,470 as of May 2018. The lowest 10% earned less than $30,750, and the highest 10% earned more than $81,400. The highest median wage was $60,100 for hospital social workers, while the lowest was $ 41,810 for individual and family social workers.

Employment Outlook

Employment of social workers is projected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average 5% forecast for all occupations. At the high end of the scale, employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 17%, and mental health and substance abuse social workers' employment is expected to grow 18%, both at a much higher rate than that of the average occupation. 

What Kind of Skills Do You Need to be a Social Worker?

Social workers help their clients function better in society. Some social workers help individuals or families identify and apply for the social services benefits they need.  

Others provide counseling, assessment, and clinical diagnostic services in schools or other group settings. Social workers also work as advocates for individuals or for the community, trying to make society a more functional and supportive place.

Social workers must be empathetic yet objective, self-aware, engaged, and motivated by a genuine desire to help clients.

Social work is not a field where you can succeed without a real sense of mission.

Types of Social Work Skills

Active Listening

Active listening means paying attention to, and remembering, what others tell you. It also means demonstrating that you are listening through body language and appropriate responses.

As you listen, analyze what you hear in its proper context and ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand. Active listening is not only an important way to collect patient information, but it is also part of how you establish trust.

Verbal Communication

Good verbal communication takes active listening one step further. By adjusting one's speaking style to the situation, a social worker can be effective in any setting, from a home visit with clients to a courtroom or legislative hall. Being able to connect in conversation with many different people is critical to serving clients well.

  • Advising
  • Advocacy
  • Counseling
  • Establishing Rapport
  • Interacting Effectively with Diverse Clientele
  • Interpersonal
  • Interviewing
  • Persuasion
  • Presentation
  • Providing Constructive Criticism
  • Role playing

Written Communication

Excellent written communication includes not only email, but also recordkeeping. Compiling clear, accurate reports, progress notes, and other documentation forms a critical part of teamwork at social services agencies. As a social worker, your written records are the primary tool your supervisor has for evaluating your skill. If a legal problem develops, reliable recordkeeping could save your job, or even your career.

Good written communication skills also help you to stay organized, and to manage your clients’ cases more effectively.

  • Care Planning
  • Case Management
  • Coordinating
  • Customizing Treatment Plans
  • Documentation
  • Organization
  • Record Keeping
  • Resource Coordination

Critical Thinking

Social workers must make important decisions based on a thorough understanding of the client’s needs and situation, the available resources, and applicable law.

Critical thinking is what allows you to make those decisions with intelligence, creativity, and kindness. Without this important skill, a social worker might miss clues, overlook opportunities, or act on personal bias.

  • Analytical Skills
  • Devising Case Plans
  • Evaluation
  • Identifying Issues
  • Prioritizing
  • Problem Assessment
  • Problem Solving

Boundary Setting

Social work is about giving, but if you give too much for too long, you will burn out. If you try to do too much too quickly for one client, you will fail—and you will not be available to help anyone else. Setting appropriate boundaries will protect you from burnout and will also keep you focused as you establish goals and coordinate treatment.

  • Emotional Resilience
  • Ethics
  • Maintaining Professional Relationships
  • Objectivity
  • Professionalism
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-evaluation
  • Attention/energy management

More Social Work Skills

  • Criminal Justice
  • Psychology
  • Sensitivity
  • Memory
  • Initiative
  • Lie Detection
  • Tact
  • Compliance
  • People Orientation
  • Attention to Detail
  • Attentiveness
  • Calmness
  • Tenacity
  • Insightful Questioning
  • Problem Sensitivity
  • Patience
  • Stress Tolerance
  • Bearing
  • Encouragement
  • Adaptability
  • Proactiveness
  • Confidence
  • Mandatory Reporting Laws
  • Quick Thinking
  • Articulateness
  • Mediation
  • Accountability
  • Negotiation
  • Diplomacy
  • Research

Resume and Cover Letter Examples

Review sample resume and cover letters for social workers.

Key Takeaways

Add Your Most Relevant Skills to Your Resume: You can include relevant skill words in your resume summary or in your “Work History” resume section.

Highlight Your Skills in Your Cover Letter: In your cover letter, pick one or two skills that you have that are important to the job. Include examples of times you demonstrated each of those skills and explain how you used those skills to benefit the organization or a client.

Use Skill Words During Job Interviews: You can expand upon your skills in your interview as well. Provide anecdotes of times you have demonstrated some of the most essential skills for the job.

Article Sources

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "What Social Workers Do." Accessed April 15, 2020.

  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "How to Become a Social Worker." Accessed April 15, 2020.

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers Pay." Accessed April 15, 2020.

  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Social Workers Job Outlook." Accessed April 15, 2020.

  5. O*Net Online. "Child, Family, and School Social Workers Skills." Accessed April 15, 2020.