Important Social Worker Skills

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Social worker and client have a conversation.

To be a social worker is to have compassion for your clients and a passion for helping others improve in their lives. Though these feelings are important, they’re not the only requirements to be a good social worker. There are certain social worker skills that professionals must develop to provide the best care to their clients.

For example, listening skills are needed during any meaningful conversation between social worker and client. Time management and organizational skills are critical for workers with multiple clients. And critical thinking and problem-solving skills are important when assessing a client’s unique situation.

However, certain social worker career paths require specialized skills. Here are four rewarding careers that social workers may pursue, and some of the essential skills that go along with them:

Correctional Social Workers

Correctional social workers work in jails, prisons, court systems and similar facilities. Their primary goal is to help inmates or people who have been involved in the criminal justice system to avoid recidivism and to successfully re-integrate into their communities, Social Work Degree Guide explained.

Correctional social work can be a particularly challenging career path. The people involved in the criminal justice system may have difficult backgrounds, and there are many obstacles they must overcome to become contributing members of their communities and families.

To help people address these challenges, correctional social workers often have additional education or training in criminal justice or forensic social work. It’s important that they have the interpersonal skills to set clear boundaries when needed, the Houston Chronicle noted. They should also have empathy and patience for their clients.

Skills in assessing clients are essential in this position. Social workers should be able to screen for potential issues like substance abuse patterns and mental health obstacles.

Veteran Social Workers

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is the nation’s largest employer of professionals with a Master of Social Work, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Social workers play an important role in the lives of many service members, veterans and their families.

Working as a social worker in the VA comes with a lot of autonomy, explained Rachael Dietkus Miller, LCSW, writing for The New Social Worker. To be successful on this career path, it’s important to have strong leadership skills and the ability to work independently.

It’s also imperative that veteran social workers have the drive and dedication to help plan and implement programs that benefit their clients. Having an understanding of the common challenges that veterans and their families face is important to understanding how to help them navigate them. Further, veteran social workers must be knowledgeable about the programs available to their clients.

Geriatric Social Workers

Geriatric social workers assist with elderly populations in accessing the services they need to age with independence and dignity, the National Association of Social Workers explained. Some of the responsibilities of a geriatric social worker include:

  • Matching clients with appropriate social programs
  • Assisting in filling out paperwork
  • Conducting various assessments of the client’s situation, including mental and cognitive abilities

To be an effective and compassionate geriatric social worker, one must be adept at establishing trust with clients and their families, according to Social Work Today. They must also have strong knowledge of the physical and mental changes an aging adult will go through.

Elder abuse is a situation social workers may encounter; 10% of Americans aged 60 years or older have experienced abuse in some way, according to the National Council on Aging. Social workers should have the ability to identify signs of elder abuse, and have knowledge of how to help their clients avoid abusive situations, Careers in Psychology noted.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers assess, diagnose, treat and prevent mental health, emotional and behavioral problems, explained NASW. They may be the first to identify mental health challenges, or emotional or behavioral challenges in a person’s life. As such, they play a critical role in diagnosing and treating such obstacles.

In this career path, people may work in hospitals, schools, treatment and recovery centers, mental health centers, private practice or somewhere else, the Houston Chronicle pointed out. Because this profession involves the assessment and diagnosis of mental health or other issues, before working as a clinical social worker, job seekers must complete their MSW and pass the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) licensure exam in their state.

In addition, there are several essential social worker skills related to this position, including:

  • Assessment: Clinical social workers must know how to effectively interview clients and use the knowledge they gather. They also should have knowledge of theories such as person-in-environment orientation, psychodynamic theory, family systems and interpersonal dynamics, to draw conclusions about their clients’ specific needs.
  • Interviewing: One of the most important skills in the assessment process, there are multiple styles of interviewing in a social work setting that a professional must master. Motivational interviewing, for example, is a method in which the social worker expresses acceptance of the client and encourages them to make self-motivational statements and practice their own ability to change their behavior, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  • Treatment planning: Every individual is unique, and so too must be their treatment plan. Clinical social workers must be able to establish treatment goals with the client, collaborate with other professionals about the services their client needs and advocate for their clients’ success.

A family meets with a counselor.

How to Pursue a Career in Social Work

The social work career is broad and wide-reaching; the skills and knowledge one will learn throughout their education can be applied in any number of settings. These four occupations are just a few of the many ways an MSW graduate can use their degree to effect positive change in the lives of clients.

Mastering social worker skills related to these positions is essential, but first, aspiring professionals must fulfill the social work education requirements. In some cases, a bachelor’s degree in social work may be sufficient, though in nearly all situations, a master’s degree can elevate opportunities and allow professionals to become better social workers for their clients. Additionally, an MSW is required to pursue certain career paths, such as clinical social work.

To take the first step toward earning your MSW, learn more about the online MSW programs no GRE available through Regis College.


Recommended reading:

6 Reasons to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker

How the MSW Prepares you for Clinical Social Work



Can I Get a Social Work Job in a Prison? – Social Work Degree Guide

What Is a Jail Social Worker? – The Houston Chronicle

Social Work in the Armed Forces – National Association of Social Workers

11 Excellent Reasons To Consider VA for Your Social Work Career – The New Social Worker

Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G) – National Association of Social Workers

Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Geriatric Social Work – Careers in Psychology

The Geriatric Social Worker — Working as Part of an Interdisciplinary Health Care Team – Social Work Today

Elder Abuse Facts – National Council on Aging

NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work – National Association of Social Workers

Skills Needed to Be a Clinical Social Worker – The Houston Chronicle

Chapter 3—Motivational Interviewing as a Counseling Style – National Center for Biotechnology Information

Social Work Career Advice – Social Work Career