Career paths: Which Type of Social Work is Right for You?

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One of the exciting aspects of pursuing a career in social work is the ability to connect with a wide range of people facing a diverse array of challenges. Social work centers around helping individuals in need, and professionals in the sector have many avenues to pursue personal areas of passion along the way. This is particularly evident in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report detailing the breadth of the human services sector.

At their core, human services workers are focused on improving the lives of the people around them. The specifics can vary a great degree depending on job role, but duties often include evaluating patient needs and working to meet those requirements. This includes formalized planning and care delivery processes, but the end goal is inherently personal and has far-reaching implications, the report explained. A few population groups human service workers interact with include children and families, the homeless, immigrants, people with addictions, veterans, and the elderly.

Besides working with diverse groups of people, social workers often get to help individuals deal with everyday tasks, meaning they are empowering struggling individuals to live healthy lives.

With so many options in play, it may prove difficult to choose how to specialize. To help, here’s a look at a few major branches of social work and what you can expect when you specialize in each one.

Child, family and school social workers

Family life presents a variety of social challenges that can leave parents and children struggling to cope with daily demands. Social workers specializing in child, family, and school settings help individuals deal with issues they are facing in healthy and productive ways. The BLS defined the roles thusly:

Social work for children: These social workers focus on the social and psychological well-being of children. Activities often include arranging for foster care or adoption and helping abused children.

Social work for families: Many of the duties performed to support children in need of social services come into play in family care, but social workers who specialize in interacting with families must also be able to assist parents.

Social work in schools: Providing social services in school settings often focuses on aiding students facing teen pregnancy, struggling with misbehavior issues or frequently missing classes. However, individuals hoping to work in school settings must also be prepared to interact with faculty and staff on an advisory basis.

All of these roles share similar points of emphasis. They involve helping children and adults on a regular basis. The BLS estimates that there are almost 300,000 individuals employed in child, family, and school social work settings. Many of these professionals work in school settings, where mean annual salaries are $62,170.

Social and community service managers

Community programs represent a vital component of the social services sector as they often are designed to meet highly-specific demands within a specific area. According to the BLS, social and community service managers take a leading role in coordinating the day-to-day activities and operations of community groups.

This managerial role can include serving as a connecting point for community and organizational stakeholders as they determine what services are most important, figuring out how best to measure the effectiveness of programs, performing data analysis to assess services, managing and creating budgets, running outreach activities to create community awareness, and identifying what services the community needs, the BLS explained.

A social and community service manager must be prepared to take on a myriad of administrative roles as well. The BLS pointed out that, depending on the size of the organization, the manager may be responsible for everything from recruiting and hiring to direct interactions with clients and service delivery. Essentially, the manager is the face of the community organization.

Based on BLS data, approximately 27 percent of social and community managers work in individual and family services. Another 18 percent function in state and local government, but outside of education and hospitals. In terms of pay, those in state and local government, but not in health care or education, experience the highest median salaries ($74,070). Managers in religious, grant making, civic, professional or similar services organizations make a median annual wage of $65,180.

Individuals in the social and community service management role in nursing and residential care facilities, individual and family services and community and vocational rehabilitation services can expect to see fairly even wages, with median annual salaries falling within $1,000 of one another in the $57,000 to $58,000 per year range.

The relatively high salaries for social and community service managers is also met with a high job growth outlook to make this a potentially attractive career option. The BLS estimates that employment will increase by 10 percent in the sector for the period of 2014 through 2024, a figure that is not only well above average, but also higher than general management occupations, which are only expected to grow by six percent.

Health care social workers

The health care sector presents social workers with opportunities to support people facing a wide range of life challenges and help those individuals get the care they need. The BLS particularly highlighted the fact that health care social workers help individuals and families deal with particularly serious and psychologically difficult circumstances, such as facing chronic, terminal or acute conditions.

These types of circumstances can be incredibly demanding, and social workers provide counseling, referrals and, in some cases, case management or interventions. What’s more, social workers can offer education that individuals need when it comes to how they should manage their care and even help people eliminate barriers that are coming between them and receiving the care that they need.

There are a variety of job opportunities for health care social workers, ranging from working in general medical and surgical hospitals to serving in home health or nursing care settings.

The BLS estimates that there are currently 159,310 individuals employed in these settings across the U.S., with 47,180 of those social workers operating in general medical and surgical hospitals. The average annual wage is $55,510.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDS) asked individuals aged 12 and older if they had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months. Approximately 10.2 percent of those polled said they had. The CDS also found that 1 out of 20 Americans aged 12 or older have reported depression. Substance abuse and mental illnesses are major challenges for affected individuals, and stigma is widely considered a barrier to treatment.

Social workers have an opportunity to help individuals overcome any sense of shame or stigma they may be feeling when struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, and the BLS highlighted that social workers will perform a wide range of activities to do so. Care actions may include case management, crisis intervention, education or client advocacy.

The mean annual wage for social workers in mental health and substance abuse settings is $47,880, and most professionals work in outpatient care centers, individual and family services or dedicated residential facilities.

Gerontological social workers

The growing population of elderly individuals in the United States creates a variety of challenges, and social workers in gerontological services focus on overcoming these issues. Research from the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare went so far as to call the population shift taking place in modern society one of “the most profound transformations in all of human history.”

On the whole, the report explained that the rapid change in life spans has meant that society does not necessarily have a clear understanding or awareness of the many challenges presented by a large elderly population, and there is a great deal of need for professionals to step in and help solve social problems surrounding the elderly. PayScale estimates median salaries for social workers in gerontology to be $45,635, but that figure doesn’t distinguish between those with a bachelor’s degree versus a master’s, so individuals striving for an advanced degree can expect higher salaries in this segment.

Social work teachers

Every industry needs experts and leaders who can pass their knowledge on to the next generation, and anticipated job demand makes teaching essential. The BLS explained that teachers in the social work setting will generally work in post-secondary environments, with some emphasizing teaching and others taking a more balanced approach and performing a combination of teaching and research activities.

Post-secondary teachers in the social work sector have an opportunity for considerable salary advancement, with mean annual wages sitting at $74,280. There are approximately 11,860 social work post-secondary teachers in the workforce, with more than 10,000 of them at colleges, universities and professional schools and 1,630 working in junior college settings. While there are fewer jobs available for those working in junior colleges, the pay tends to be better, with the mean annual salary hitting $77,360.

Individuals considering a social work teaching position should be aware of geographic considerations, as the number of jobs available tends to skew toward highly populated regions, with New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas as the top states with for employment for social work post-secondary teachers. To put this geographical disparity into perspective, the BLS found that there are approximately 2,010 social work teachers in New York. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas have between 660 and 690 social work teachers employed within their borders. The state with the fifth highest levels of employment – Ohio – has 550 people serving as social work teachers.

Choosing the right branch for you

Ultimately, selecting the right specialization is a very personal decision. With so many options in hand, however, the social work sector offers opportunities for individuals who want to work with a variety of population groups.

A Master of Social Work degree can be the first step toward specialization when pursuing a career in social work. At Rutgers University, our MSW degree program provides the demanding academic environment and flexible learning model needed to help individuals dive into the various segments of social work and discover which is the best fit for their long-term goals.