Social workers spend their days helping people with complicated psychological, health, social, or financial problems. They assist families in need and people who are the victims of abuse. They provide counseling, advice, and direction for people who would otherwise have no way of bettering their situations. While seeing people who are confused, scared, and beset by problems all day long may sound disheartening, social workers told us that they were uplifted by their job and that they truly felt they were doing work of value. “People need your help and if you’re part of the human race, you give it to them,” said one, adding, “The only strange thing is that you get paid to do it.”
Social workers, around half of whom work for local and federal governments, have to be familiar with all assistance programs and services available for those in need. This requires continuing education to keep abreast of programs, their funding, and their efficacy. “The quickest way to lose your client’s trust is to send them to an agency that tells them they’re not eligible,” said one by way of explaining that the trust of one’s client is difficult to earn and easily lost. Social workers have to be prepared for disappointments from their clients as well. Over 30 percent of urban families assigned a social worker miss one of their first three appointments. Still, most professionals invest themselves heavily in the fates of their clients, and a number of our respondents called this involvement emotionally draining. While this contributes to the reasonably high attrition rate for first-year workers (15 percent), respondents noted that it was valuable in that it kept them aware of the significance of what they do.
More and more, social workers are being asked to find an area of focused responsibility, such as criminal justice issues, gerontological services, or medical issues. This can leave the social worker a bit dissatisfied, as often a client will have a number of concurrent problems, and they have a very prescribed range of duties they can perform. For people with a natural instinct to help others, this is tantamount to “telling a millionaire he can only give away twenty dollars at a time.” Private professionals are under no such restrictions, and record generally higher levels of satisfaction.
Social workers face significant educational requirements. Most initial positions, which are primarily clerical, require only a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (B.S.W.) or a related field, such as psychology or sociology. For positions which involve psychological recommendations or assessments, or for positions with more responsibility, a Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.) is required. Over 300 colleges offer B.S.W.s and over 100 offer M.S.W.s and are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Those who wish to advance to policy or director positions are asked to complete a Ph.D. in social work. Nearly all programs require extensive field work and client contact. Traditional coursework includes social welfare policies, political science, human behavior, research methodology, and abnormal psychology. All states have strict licensing requirements for social workers, and additional professional certifications are available from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Private practitioners are encouraged to earn professional certifications, as it helps in collecting reimbursement for services from insurance providers.
Social workers have a strong instinct to help people, and this often translates into positions such as therapists, guidance counselors, and not-for-profit counseling services. Those who become burned out by the intense nature of the client/worker relationship find slightly more distancing professions, such as teaching, writing promotional literature for programs, and fundraising.