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Social Work Careers

Social work student and client

Social workers today practice in a broad range of places, including hospitals, schools, public service agencies, police departments and courts. But no matter what setting they choose, social workers all share a common mission: to help their clients meet basic needs and cope with life's challenges.

Read on to learn more about what social workers do, the history of the social work profession and what types of professional opportunities exist for social workers today.

What is social work?

As a profession, social work seeks to support the welfare of individuals in a community. A social worker is a professional who has undergone extensive postsecondary and field training to carry out this mission.

Social workers commonly tackle problems related to poverty, discrimination, addiction, abuse, unemployment, disability, mental illness or loss of a loved one. This list is hardly exhaustive, however -- social workers may deal with virtually any problem that prevents a client from functioning in society.

Social workers help people through a variety of means. They may assist clients in acquiring material assistance from government or private agencies, or lead the clients to other resources that can help solve their problems. Social workers may also use their knowledge of psychological and sociological concepts to analyze clients' struggles and suggest ways they can overcome them and make better choices. 

Depending on their interests and training, social workers may occupy a wide range of professional roles, many of which have unique job titles and responsibilities. Below are just some of the professional capacities in which social workers may serve:

  • Clinical/Mental health social worker
  • School social worker
  • Adoption/Family preservation worker
  • Child protective services worker
  • Hospital social worker
  • Hospice/Bereavement counselor
  • Rehabilitation/Disabilities counselor
  • Public assistance worker
  • Human rights/Community activist
  • Domestic violence/Family counselor
  • Gerontological social worker
  • Forensic social worker
  • Legislative/Public policy advocate

While social workers are typically adept at helping people find immediate solutions to simple problems -- securing food stamps for someone who is hungry, for instance -- the ultimate goal of social work is to help clients achieve lasting independence and security in their lives.

History of social work

While charitable groups and traditions have existed throughout history, modern social work traces its roots to the late 19th century. Columbia University offered its first courses in social work -- then called "social philanthropy" -- in the summer of 1898.

The Settlement House movement also emerged around that time, led by institutions such as the Hull House, a Chicago-based settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. The Hull House worked to combat social ills such as poverty, crime and child labor.  

Social Work evolved as a profession throughout the 20th century, driven by trailblazers such as Frances Perkins, a social worker who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League and dean at the Atlanta School of Social Work, and Addams, who earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her work across progressive causes.

Governmental efforts such as Roosevelt's New Deal helped establish government's role in addressing the welfare of its citizens and pave the way for public institutions to tackle poverty and other social issues. Over time, private institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes also began adding social workers to their staffs, growing the number of opportunities in the profession significantly.  

Today social workers serve many different functions in many different types of institutions. While it is impossible to say precisely what the future holds for social work, the demand for licensed social workers in the U.S. looks poised to grow for the foreseeable future -- see the social work career outlook section below.  

How do you become a social worker?

To become a social worker, you must have a degree in social work from a college or university program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The undergraduate degree required to become a social worker is the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW). A BSW is a four-year degree that prepares graduates to sit for a social work licensing exam and compete for social worker positions.  

Most social service positions within the U.S. require a social work license. In Nevada, the Board of Examiners for Social Workers, instituted by the Nevada Legislature, handles licensing for all social workers. It also investigates complaints against licensed social workers, regulates the practice of social work and imposes disciplinary actions against those who violate social work laws.

Applicants for social work licensure in Nevada must meet the following requirements:

  • Applicants must be at least 21 years of age.
  • Applicants must be citizens of the U.S. or must be lawfully entitled to remain and work in the U.S.
  • Applicants must possess a BSW degree or Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a college or university accredited by either the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or one which is a candidate for such accreditation.
  • BSW applicants must pass the baccalaureate level examination of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).
  • MSW applicants must pass the master's level examination of the ASWB.

After receiving a BSW degree, some social workers continue their education in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Although most MSW degrees require the equivalent of two full-time years of study, some graduate programs provide an accelerated course of study. Accelerated courses of study are generally referred to as "advanced standing" programs and can typically be completed within one year. Students accepted into an advanced standing program bypass the MSW program's foundation content and move directly into the concentration curriculum.

Other institutions offer online Master of Social Work programs, which are based primarily online to allow working professionals -- typically those who are practicing social work after earning a BSW degree -- to earn their degree in a more flexible setting.

Social work salaries

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the national U.S. median income for a social worker in May 2015 was $45,900.

Social workers nationally have a fairly wide range of salary outcomes. According to the BLS, the lowest 10 percent of social work earners claimed less than $28,530 in annual salary. However, the highest 10 percent of social work earners earned more than $76,820.

In Nevada, the average (not median) annual salary for a social worker was $67,250 in May 2015, equivalent to about $32.33 per hour. The lowest 10 percent of social workers in Nevada made less than $40,380 annually, and the highest 10 percent made more than $84,230 annually.

Social work career outlook

There were 649,300 social work jobs in the U.S. in 2014, according to the BLS. The BLS projects social work jobs to increase at an above-average pace from 2014 to 2024, growing at a rate of 12 percent for a 10-year gain of 74,800 jobs.

Competition for social work jobs is often strongest in cities where demand for services is highest, training programs for social workers are prevalent and interest in available positions is strongest. However, social workers may find attractive opportunities in communities of all types.

To see social work opportunities in northern Nevada, visit the University's social work job board.

Learn more about social work

To learn about social work at the University of Nevada, Reno, visit its School of Social Work site. For information on its degree programs, review these pages:

For general information on social work, visit these pages:

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