What Does a Social Worker Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

Social worker and client in a home for seniors
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A social worker helps people cope with the challenges they are facing in their lives. Some, called clinical social workers, are therapists who diagnose and then treat individuals who have mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

Earnings and job duties can differ for social workers based on the populations they serve and their work environment. Specialty categories include children, families, and schools; mental health and substance abuse; and health care.

Social Worker Duties & Responsibilities

Typical job duties for social workers include the following:

  • Providing mental health counseling to individuals, groups or families—if one is a clinical social worker
  • Conducting initial assessments of clients' situation to determine needs and goals
  • Researching and advocating for appropriate public assistance resources for clients
  • Communicating with clients' care teams
  • Providing crisis intervention as needed
  • Referring individuals to appropriate treatment centers, as indicated
  • Ensuring that all case files, and other records, strictly comply with policies, regulations, and procedures
  • Coordinating treatment planning and maintaining ongoing contact with outpatient providers for the continual care of patients
  • Actively participating in ongoing training as needed in order to meet all certification standards and credentialing policies

In general, social workers help people assess and solve problems in their lives. These challenges range from physical and mental illness to child care and crises such as domestic violence. Additional duties depend on the type of population and area of expertise of the social worker.

Social Worker Salary

A social worker's salary can vary depending on location, experience, and area of expertise. Here's the breakdown for the job category as a whole:

  • Median Annual Salary: $47,490
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $79,740
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $29,560

Education Requirements & Qualifications

To become a social worker you will have to go to college and earn a degree, but beyond that, there are different paths exist for different specialties.

Education: For an entry-level job, you will need at least a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW), but you may be able to get a job if you have a degree in psychology or sociology. Some jobs require a Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW). If you want a career as a clinical social worker, the advanced MSW degree is required.

Internship and fieldwork: All educational programs for becoming a social worker require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

Licensing, certification, and registration: All states and the District of Columbia require social workers to be either licensed, certified, or registered. The Social Work Career Center has a list of state licensing agencies, and How to Become a Social Worker takes a comprehensive look at education, training, and licensing including course curriculums and different schools. 

Social Worker Skills & Competencies

Those who want to become social workers should develop certain soft skills, which include the following:

  • Service Orientation: A strong desire to help other people is essential.
  • Active listening: You must give clients your full attention whenever meeting with them.
  • Verbal communication: Your clients will be depending on you to convey information to them, their families, and other service providers.
  • Interpersonal skills: In addition to listening and speaking skills, you also need social skills so you connect with people.
  • Time management and organizational skills: Given the large caseload that most social workers have, these skills are essential.
  • Critical thinking: You must be able to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions when helping your clients solve problems.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for this occupation varies by specialty but is good overall. The BLS predicts that, in general, employment of social workers will grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2026, at a rate of 14 percent.

Work Environment

Social workers can do their jobs in a number of different environments. Those include hospitals, schools, government institutions, private practices, and more. Most people who hold this position work an in office, but they may also spend time traveling to see clients.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.

Work Schedule

Most jobs are full-time and sometimes include work on weekends, evenings, and holidays. Some social workers are also required to be on call sometimes.

Comparing Similar Jobs

If you're interested in social work but none of the general or specialty areas appeal to you, you may want to look into the professions listed below along with their median salary.​

  • Marriage and family therapists: $48,790
  • Psychologists: $77,030
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $34,860
  • Health educators and community health workers: $45,360