How to become a social worker (step-by-step)

Last updated: July 22, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to become a social worker (step-by-step)
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Social work can be a fulfilling career if you enjoy helping others live happier and better lives.

As a social worker, you’ll get to work with clients in one-on-one or group settings and earn a good living doing it.

But how can you become a social worker? What are the steps you need to take? And how do you know if this is the right career for you?

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the step-by-step process you need to follow to become a social worker. You’ll also find information about the job outlook of professionals in this field, how much you can expect to earn, who this job is cut out for, and more.

What are social workers, and what are their responsibilities?

Social workers help people handle and manage challenges in their lives in a wide range of situations. These people could include individuals who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, those who want to adopt a child, or those who’ve gone through extreme trauma.

Social workers assist their clients by analyzing their relationships, environments, and all the other aspects that influence their lives. These professionals are expected to be kind since their job involves building client relationships based on compassion and trust.

There are many different types of social workers. These include the following:

  • Child and family social workers: These workers assist children and their families with psychological or social issues in school, in their homes, and within their communities. They assess the suitability of home and school environments for these children. They work with school staff and families to resolve any issues that arise and are sometimes required to place children in foster care.

  • Substance abuse and mental health social workers: These workers provide support and counseling to people who struggle with mental conditions, such as depression or substance abuse. They help patients find appropriate and affordable rehabilitation centers and programs based on their needs.

  • Medical social workers: These workers help people with medical problems or chronic illnesses find coping mechanisms. They also provide referrals and help patients find the best possible healthcare services.

  • Military social workers: These workers assess the well-being of military personnel during and after their military service. During their assessments, military social workers determine whether patients are suffering from mental illnesses or post-traumatic stress and recommend appropriate treatments for them.

  • Community social workers: People in this role work with large groups of community members instead of individuals. They provide resources and develop social programs to enhance the quality of life of individuals in a specific neighborhood, city, or town.

Some of their daily responsibilities include the following:

  • Meeting with clients regularly

  • Assessing clients’ situations, challenges, and needs so they can help them in the best way possible

  • Responding to crises, such as suicide attempts and child abuse emergencies

  • Monitoring clients’ progress and following up with them to determine whether they’ve improved

  • Referring clients to other professionals, specialists, and resources

  • Developing treatment plans to help clients overcome obstacles and achieve their objectives

  • Maintaining records and case files

  • Bringing awareness to community needs by advocating for people going through situations such as abuse and trauma

Who employs social workers?

According to BLS (the Bureau of Labor Statistics), employment of social workers is projected to increase by 9% from 2021–2031, which is faster than average. This makes social work a great future-focused career opportunity if you’re looking for job security.

In 2021, social workers held around 708,000 jobs in the U.S. — with the largest proportion of employers being individual and family social services.

Other popular employers in the social services sector include local governments, ambulatory healthcare, and state governments.

How much do social workers earn?

Social workers earn an average salary of $50,390 per year or $24.23 per hour.

However, social workers’ salaries can differ based on various factors, including experience, location, skills, and specializations.

Location

The salary ranges for social workers in different cities are largely based on the cost of living. The reality is that workers in some cities earn far more than those in other cities.

For example, in California, the median salary of social workers can be up to 16% higher than average, while those who work in Pennsylvania earn 11% less.

Skills

Social workers can also earn higher wages if they have highly sought-after skills. Those with the following skills can earn higher salaries:

  • Insurance: 20% more

  • Oncology: 19% more

  • Utilization review: 18% more

  • Hospice: 16% more

  • Bereavement counseling: 16% more

  • Project management: 15% more

  • Policy analysis: 15% more

Learn what hard skills are and how to highlight them in your resume to stand out from other candidates.

Experience

Social workers earn more as they gain experience. For example, those with 10 to 19 years of experience can earn up to $12,000 more per year than those with one year of experience.

Specialization

Social workers also earn different salaries based on their specialization. For example, according to BLS, healthcare social workers earn an annual salary of around $62,300, while child, family, and school social workers earn close to $54,900 annually.

Is a career as a social worker right for you?

Here are some signs a career as a social worker might be the ideal fit for you and your skills:

  • You enjoy helping others: You’re the type of person who volunteers your time to aid in causes close to your heart. You’re also a friend who’s always willing to help your loved ones by providing emotional support when they’re going through tough times.

  • You love one-on-one interactions: You enjoy speaking to people face-to-face — individually or in small groups. You use these times to encourage people to open up in less intimidating or less “crowded” settings.

  • You’re patient: You aren’t pushy and allow people to talk to you when they’re ready. Often, in social work, patients won’t want to open up immediately. It’ll be your job to build that trust and show them they have nothing to fear from you.

  • You have good people skills: Your friendly and approachable personality draws people to you. You’re an optimistic and compassionate person at heart. Learn more about interpersonal skills and how to showcase them in your resume.

  • You know how to set boundaries: You often engage in self-care activities to ensure you don’t burn out. You know how to determine when self-care is necessary by examining your physical, emotional, and mental state.

  • You’re an excellent listener: Your active listening skills help people feel comfortable sharing things with you. You listen to people’s problems without judgment and provide them with helpful advice — but only after hearing the entire story.

  • You’re perceptive: You pay attention to every little detail when people speak to you. This includes their words, body language, demeanor, and social cues. This is especially important when dealing with patients who struggle to express themselves.

Steps to become a social worker

Here are the steps you need to take to become a social worker:

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

First, you’ll need to complete your undergraduate education and earn a bachelor’s degree.

If you don’t have a degree yet, a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is your best option. This education will give you a strong foundation in social work and communication.

Having a bachelor’s degree means you’ll be able to find employment in an unlicensed position, such as a residential counselor or child welfare worker.

However, if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW). This is an excellent option for people who want to pivot their careers and make a meaningful impact in people’s lives and their communities by entering the social services field.

2. Get your MSW

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social work, you can pursue an MSW.

Be sure to choose a master’s degree that includes adequate supervised hours in the field so you can meet your state’s requirements when applying for social work licensure.

In your master’s program, you’ll explore a range of topics and focus on those that sound the most interesting. These topics include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Child abuse assessment

  • Law and ethics

  • Spouse abuse

  • Alcoholism and chemical dependency

  • Family caregiving

  • Substance use disorder

  • And others

Your master’s program can take one to four years to complete. It all depends on your enrollment status and the school.

3. Gain professional experience

To get your social work license, you are required to complete a set amount of hours of supervised experience. The number of hours differs by state. For example, California requires a minimum of 3,000 hours of experience over 104 weeks.

You must apply to become an associate clinical social worker (ASW) through the Board of Behavioral Services to gain these hours. That will allow you to work under the supervision of a licensed professional so you can gain the necessary experience.

This experience will not only give you what you need to apply for a license, but it’ll also emotionally prepare you to work with patients from various backgrounds and with unique needs.

4. Complete your exams and apply for licensure

After completing licensing requirements and gaining enough practical experience, you must complete the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam. Your state might also require you to complete an additional social work exam.

The ASWB licensing exam contains a total of 170 multiple-choice questions. To give you a better understanding of these questions and what you’ll be expected to know, you can look at the example question that ASWB provides.

5. Apply for a position

After successful completion of your education, field experience, and licensure exams, you can apply for social work jobs that fit your specialization.

You can do this by going to Jobcase’s job board.

Simply type in the position you’re looking for and the area you want to work in. You can even choose how far you’re willing to commute. From there, Jobcase will provide a list of jobs that fit these specifications.

You can go through these positions one by one to see what the educational requirements are and determine whether you are a good fit. Once you find a position that suits your education and needs, you can apply directly from Jobcase.

Find the best social worker job opportunities that are hiring right now!

6. Continue your education

You’ll need to renew your license after a certain period. The timeframes for renewal differ by state. For example, in Michigan, social workers’ licenses expire every three years. Many states require social workers to continue their education to be eligible for license renewals.

There are many ways to continue your education, including the following:

  • Professional meetings and organized learning experiences, such as conferences and panel discussions

  • Learning events, such as practice-orientated seminars and workshops

  • Self-learning activities, such as publication presentations, teaching or training assignments, and independent study

Based on your career goals, you’ll also have the option to open a private practice if you continue your education.

Ready to serve your community as a social worker?

After reading this article, are you ready to pursue a career as a social worker? Does this sound like the ideal career for you?

If so, follow the steps outlined above to get started. Start by getting the necessary degrees. From there, you can gain experience to apply for your licensure.

If you already have a degree and qualify for unlicensed positions, head over to our job board to look for positions such as a case manager, residential counselor, and or other types of social workers.

Also, take a look at our resource center for useful tips on resumes, job searches, and more.

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