Social workers serve people from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups. As a result, they can find employment in many different settings. Where do social workers work? Schools? Government agencies? Health care facilities? Nonprofits? Private practices?
The answer is “yes” to all of the above. Wherever there are individuals, families, or communities who need to navigate schools, health care systems, or government programs, social workers should be there to support and assist.
In an increasingly digital world, social workers can also work remotely or in person. In either setting, a social worker strives to improve the well-being of those they serve. Whatever path they take, social workers can gain additional expertise and widen their professional options through graduate degrees such as an online Master of Social Work (MSW).
Social workers find employment in settings that serve the populations they’re interested in helping. Social workers who specialize in supporting students and their families, for example, typically work in classrooms and other educational settings.
School social workers often find employment in school districts — sometimes providing direct services to students, families, and school personnel. Social workers may help a family request and implement an individualized education plan (IEP) for their child, for instance. Other times, school social workers may act as liaisons between a school and the community by obtaining resources to meet students’ needs or advocating for new school services.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 715,600 social work jobs in the country in 2020. Approximately 335,300 of those fell into the category of child, family, and school social workers.
Obtaining an MSW can prepare individuals to work in this sector by exposing them to the breadth of knowledge needed to work in school and family settings. Working at a school, for example, can mean interacting with a diverse range of students each day, all with varied needs. At the same time, helping families requires care skills that cover a variety of age ranges and related life challenges.
2. Family Services
The type of social work practice in schools and at agencies providing family services is often similar. In both settings, there is a common emphasis on supporting children and families to create a safe home and developmental environments.
Family services social workers support child welfare. Like school social workers, they may work specifically with individual children, such as those who have disabilities, and their families. Family services agencies employ social workers who support foster care, adoption, and family unification. Social workers who specialize in providing support for youths, including LGBTQ youths and homeless youths, may also be employed.
3. Health Care Facilities
Hospitals, clinics, mental health centers, and similar health care institutions are also among the most common settings where social workers work. Approximately 184,900 social workers worked as health care social workers in 2020, according to the BLS. These institutions turn to social workers to provide clinical support for patients and their families as they make difficult care decisions, deal with grief, and navigate the recovery process. Social workers who specialize in supporting veterans often work in relevant health care settings, such as Veterans Affairs hospitals, clinics, and medical centers.
Individuals already working in the field may wonder whether . In health care settings, the highly clinical nature of social work makes this degree qualification essential. Counseling and other clinical social work roles — which are key in mental health facilities, rehabilitation clinics, and similar environments — have the same licensing requirements as private practice. In a hospital, there may be nonclinical roles where clinical licensure is not necessary, such as working as a patient advocate. Even in these contexts, however, pursuing an MSW can confer significant professional advantages.
4. Nonprofit Organizations
Social workers may work for nonprofit organizations that house and provide direct support to specific populations. Such nonprofit settings include:
- Assisted living facilities
- Care facilities for adults with disabilities
- Home care facilities for aging adults
- Detox centers
- Group homes
Social workers may also work for organizations that push for social change and are supported by grants and private donations. Issues such as racial discrimination, homelessness, food insecurity, or domestic violence are among the challenges they work to mitigate. Social workers can use their skills to advocate for social justice through lobbying, grassroots organizing, and public awareness campaigns. Some common activities for social workers in these roles include:
- Grant writing
- Community development
5. Private Practice
Operating in private practice can give social workers freedom to set their own schedules, build their own businesses, and focus on taking on the types of clients they’re most interested in working with. These benefits do come with some caveats, particularly when it comes to handling the administrative tasks of running an organization and working to develop a steady stream of clients to maintain consistent cash flow.
When working in private practice, social workers take on a great deal of responsibility for their success. They frequently work in home offices or lease a dedicated office space. The main perk is that social workers in private practice can truly customize what they do, and how they do it, based on their preferences and work tendencies.
One of the major challenges of private practice is the level of expertise needed to support clients without having a clinical supervisor to fall back on. This is where earning an MSW degree is particularly important. An MSW is required for licensure as a clinical social worker, which is necessary before entering into private practice. For this reason, earning an MSW degree is essential for social workers who are driven to go it alone, as the degree can provide educational opportunities and practical training while also smoothing the path to licensure.
6. Private-Sector Businesses
As awareness of the mental and emotional challenges of today’s fast-paced work environments grows, more businesses are implementing strategies to incorporate social workers into their staffs.
With basic tasks becoming increasingly automated, businesses are placing greater emphasis on traits like emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication — hallmarks of the social work profession. Social workers can be instrumental in helping businesses cultivate a more inclusive atmosphere and one where work-life balance is valued.
Additionally, companies are becoming more concerned with social responsibility and creating safer work environments. Social work teams that directly support employees or provide company leadership are an important resource in these efforts.
Take Your First Step with an MSW
Social workers can step into rewarding roles in a wide variety of settings. If you want flexibility or have an ideal setting in mind, an MSW degree can help you get there.
The online masters of social work makes an advanced degree accessible while offering you support to help you further your social work education. We’d love to speak with you about your goals and how we can help you achieve them.
The Role and Responsibilities of a Hospice Social Worker
Important Social Worker Skills
How the MSW Prepares you for Clinical Social Work
Fast Company, “Why Companies Need to Hire Social Workers”
FlexJobs, “10 Companies That Hire for Online Social Work Jobs”
National Association of Social Workers, “Types of Social Work”