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Are you looking for a career that makes a positive impact in people’s lives? The field of social work does just that while encompassing a broad array of career possibilities. Social workers work in a variety of settings, including schools, mental health clinics, hospitals, non-profits, child welfare and human service agencies, community development corporations, and private practices.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 713,200 social workers in the U.S. in 2019, with a median pay of $50,470 per year. The job outlook for social workers is positive, with a projected 13 percent increase in job growth for 2019-2029, adding 90,700 positions by 2029.

How do you know if social work is the right career path for you? We spoke to Rachael Wegener, Associate Clinical Social Worker, who shared her experiences of working in the field for the past 10 years, and characteristics of a successful social worker.

“A good social worker is empathetic, patient, understanding, knowledgeable, and an absolute must is that the social worker be culturally competent,” said Wegener. 

Wegener said there’s no such thing as a typical day in social work, and that every day is different. She spends most of her days meeting face to face with children in the school setting, or families at home, providing therapy, parental support, and resources. Much of her day is also spent on the road driving between clients, or completing administrative tasks. 

“In my current position, my responsibilities are to assess client and family needs, diagnose mental health disorders, create treatment plans for the child, as well as to work in conjunction with the child’s school of attendance to ensure they are receiving support in the school setting,” Wegener said. “I also have to keep daily session notes of all of my interactions in a timely manner.” 

Getting started in the field

According to Wegener, there are many great ways to start a career as a social worker, as opportunities are all around us. 

“Volunteering is a great way to build up a ‘social work resume,’ but to find meaningful employment without experience can come from looking for jobs that serve any population that experiences oppression, lack of access to resources, live in poverty, and people who are underserved in the community,” Wegener said. “Looking for a position working with children who are on the spectrum is a great foot in the door, or working with disabled adults, providing in-home support to the elderly, and any kind of community activist job is a great way to get into the field.” 

Career advice and considerations

Wegener has the following advice for someone considering a career in social work: “Go into this field with an open mind and an open heart. Some days social work will break your heart and tear you down. Other days, you will marvel in the resiliency and strength of those facing adversity.” 

What makes social work so important? According to Wegener, advocating for those who struggle to represent themselves is crucial.

“Social justice is the most important aspect of social worktrying to support underserved and oppressed populations with the same resources and privileges that everyone else has,” said Wegener. “Being an advocate is also a huge aspect of social workwe work to give a voice to the voiceless.”  

Benefits, challenges, and rewards of social work 

Social work can be a physically and emotionally demanding job consisting of long hours, even on nights, weekends, and holidays. 

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of emotional unrest that comes with social work,” Wegener said. “I think at times we experience secondary trauma after being around clients who have experienced so much trauma. We see things most people will never see in a lifetime.”

Despite the traumatic experiences social workers engage in, they also observe a number of lasting benefits.

“One benefit is that you get to support change on an individual level, as well as systematically. Another benefit is how diverse the field is, and that you likely have chosen a career in which you can stay until the day you retire, as social workers will always be needed. Additionally, social workers are always learning, not only through continuing education, but from the people we servethey teach us love, compassion, and humility.” 

Wegener said the rewards of being a social worker outweigh the challenges.

“Watching someone you work with change before your very eyes, and knowing that you as the social worker showed them that they had it in them the whole time to be something amazing is very rewarding,” said Wegener.

A growing need for social workers

Wegener would like to see more funding for schools to help provide support for students with mental health issues. 

“Mental health is exploding in the youth population, and the majority of districts across the entire country do not have the money to have social workers in the schools,” Wegener said. “I believe the field will continue to expand as mental health continues to be more and more a part of our daily lives and experiences, as more people need support as they age, and the socioeconomic divide continues to create lifelong challenges for individuals and families.” 

Related: Social Worker Licensing Requirements and Examinations Overview

If you have already earned your degree in social work, and are studying for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam, check out our video on what you need to know about the exam. Let Peterson’s ASWB practice tests help you prepare for the exam.