If you are passionate about supporting vulnerable sectors of society and want to play an active role in community development, social work can be an ideal and fulfilling career for you. With the rising number of problems with injustice and inequality in societies and other global issues, there is a growing need for resilient, dynamic, and effective social workers all over the world. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. BLS) predicts a 9% growth in social worker employment from 2021 to 2031 (U.S. BLS, 2022).
In this guide, we present the social work career requirements for someone with or without a background in social work education (SWE). We also focus on the importance of on-the-job experience for students in SWE programs, as with all other relevant experiences that can further boost your expertise and skills in the field. Our researchers looked through credible sources and datasets to provide you with relevant and helpful information as you plan your path toward becoming a social worker in today’s world.
The social work career requirements can vary with each job, organization, and geographic location. Generally, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for entry-level social work jobs and to apply for a social worker license in most states in the U.S. Your educational background is one factor in the sort of employment opportunities you will have in the field, so it can be advantageous to know what degree path you want to pursue early on.
When faced with the question of what do you need to be in social work, the most common answer is to get a bachelor of social work. Also known as a BSW, this degree can give you a comprehensive foundational background for a generalist social work practice and includes around 400 hours of field education. It is best to choose an accredited on-campus or online BSW program, especially if you plan to proceed with a master’s degree and apply for licensure. To compare, read our post on what is the difference between social work and counseling.
A master of social work is also commonly referred to as MSW. This degree typically provides you with the education and training required for a license application and specializations in the profession like clinical, school, military, or geriatric social work services. You will also have to complete around 900 hours of fieldwork. Depending on your undergraduate educational background and your current ability to focus on graduate studies, you can choose from a traditional, accelerated, or advanced standing MSW program. As for the learning format, you can opt for on-campus or online master degree social work programs.
It is best to choose an accredited BSW or MSW program because this is one of the requirements for the social work licensure examination. According to Zippia, the most common degree for licensed social workers is a bachelor’s (55.1%), followed by a master’s (38.2%), an associate’s (4.9%), and a doctorate (.8%) (Zippia, 2023). Learn more about your MSW degree options in our post on online MSW programs no gre required institutions.
Source: Zippia, 2023
If you are not yet completely sure that you want to major in social work but are open to working in jobs in the field, you can opt to obtain an undergraduate degree closely related to the discipline. Some of the common non-BSW degrees for social workers include psychology, peace and social justice studies, human development, women’s and gender studies, and sociology degrees. These majors can open doors to employment opportunities in the social work profession, but, if you want more flexibility and plan to pursue career advancement, it is advisable to obtain a master’s in social work after your undergraduate studies.
Not all jobs in social work require a license, although some employers and states may require licensure for certain roles. For example, if you want to provide clinical services, one of the requirements for a career in social work is clinical social work licensure. If you want to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a social worker, you need an MSW approved by the department secretary and a license or certificate to independently practice in a state. Learn more about online LCSW programs.
Since different specializations and each U.S. state tends to have its own licensing regulations, it is best to check the individual requirements so you know in advance which credentials you need to obtain.
Most social work career requirements will also ask for licensure applicants to complete a specific number of hours of supervised work experience under a licensed social worker.
Even if you can find roles that do not require a social work license, obtaining professional credentials can usually boost your employability and increase your chances of being qualified for senior-level positions. Zippia reports that there are currently over 187,402 licensed social workers employed in the United States as of September 2022 (Zippia, 2022).
Social work is considered a practice-based profession. Thus, those in the field are expected to gain as much hands-on experience as they can throughout all the stages of their education and career. In fact, field education and on-the-job experience are highly valued among employers when assessing social work career requirements for certain roles. These are also requirements for most MSW programs.
There are several ways you can obtain relevant experience to become a social worker and these can include a variety of paid and/or unpaid jobs, service corps, internships, or volunteer work. Here, we provide you with some of the best ways to acquire useful experiences that can be beneficial to a future career in social work.
Fieldwork—also referred to as field education, field practicum, field instruction, internship, or practicum—is a vital component of the curriculum for a BSW and MSW and is one of the surest ways you can gain relevant experience to meet social work career requirements. SWE programs prepare students for professional practice by immersing them in communities and allowing them to interact with different vulnerable populations. This gives them first-hand experience in applying the theories and best practices they learned in their courses. Students will have certain educational objectives and will work under the supervision of an experienced social worker.
SWE fieldwork can mean working directly with individuals, families, groups, or communities or being involved in planning, administration, and policy development. MSW students will also spend a portion of their field education in settings that are within the scope of their chosen specialization in social work.
Being a volunteer in programs, organizations, and activities aimed towards assisting vulnerable populations in communities is another great way to acquire relevant experience that can go toward fulfilling social work career requirements. This can also be an opportunity to get more exposure to the many specializations of social work and create an impression on you and your future career plans, even if you have a non-SWE background. For example, if you have a behavioral psychology degree and do volunteer work abroad as part of counseling programs for those affected by armed conflict in war-torn countries, your experience on the ground as you interact with refugees and other victims can expose you to the duties of international social workers and the operations of humanitarian organizations.
Volunteering can also be a great way to start obtaining relevant experience and developing skills and knowledge related to the profession, even at an earlier age. This can be a good option for high school students who already have some interest in pursuing a social work career. Not to mention, many organizations, programs, and events accept young volunteers, unlike certain social work jobs that have a minimum age requirement.
Volunteer work can also enhance social work students’ experiences because it provides opportunities to better understand the social work profession. This is because you can broaden your experiential learning since you can volunteer to work with a variety of populations and environments. Your volunteering can either supplement, enhance, or widen your fieldwork experience. You might even find opportunities for future employment.
Some of the best volunteer work opportunities to meet social work career requirements are the following:
The report titled “Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector: A Quarterly Review,” published by the Independent Sector, provides an overview of the nonprofit sector in the fall and winter of 2021. According to the report, the U.S. nonprofit sector contributed $1.4 trillion to the economy in the fourth quarter of 2021. Furthermore, nonprofit workers comprised 6.3% of the overall workforce in the same period (Independent Sector, 2022).
There are some jobs where you do not have to meet social work career requirements but where you can gain relevant skills and experience that you can use as a future social worker. For example, several career options in humanities and social sciences involve working in the same or similar environments as those in the field of social work. These can include jobs as a lobbyist, research assistant, journalist, paralegal, and more. Essentially, any type of work that allows you to interact with vulnerable populations, get involved in community development, or take part in healthcare and social issues can be considered a good experience for someone who wants to pivot to a social work career.
Here are more options:
Having any work experience in related fields can sometimes also be considered for your credits when applying to MSW programs. Moreover, you can increase your potential to earn more or apply for high-level positions. The McKinsey Global Institute 2022 report titled “Human capital at work” highlights that “work experience contributes 40% to 60% of a worker’s human capital” (Mckinsey Global Institute, 2022).
Skills are additional social work career requirements that you can earn from relevant experience, during internships, and through SWE. Having the right attributes can significantly impact your effectiveness as a social worker, so it is advantageous to know what skills you need to further develop from early on. Social workers will need a combination of technical, soft, and hard skills, especially so they can keep up with the changes and advancements in the profession.
One of the most important social work skills is empathy. A study titled “The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals,” published by the journal Healthcare, emphasizes the need for health and social care students to develop empathetic skills. The authors conclude that “The development of empathetic skills constitutes an important priority in the education of health and social care students and should be encouraged. Educational programs should primarily be performed in a hands-on way that will strengthen the students’ personal and social skills and allow them to effectively communicate with their patients. Moreover, healthcare professionals should be supported through continuous and personal development education programs as well as through supervision sessions that will allow them to develop empathetic skills (Moudatsu et al., 2020). Social workers play a vital role in protecting and helping those who are most vulnerable in society, such as children, the homeless, minorities, and those with developmental, mental, and emotional health problems. Having empathy allows you to put yourself in the shoes of your clients and gives you more patience and willingness to understand them and their problems without passing any judgment.
Aside from empathy, other skills that can boost your qualifications needed to be a social worker are the following:
If you are able to meet social worker skill requirements, you have a better chance of finding employment faster and of having more flexible career options. Aside from that, the right skills can also increase your chances of getting accepted into the SWE program that you are considering.
The nonprofit education advocacy organization America Succeeds published a report on the need for students to develop soft skills or what is referred to as “durable skills.” Titled “The High Demand for Durable Skills,” the research shows that out of the 82 million job postings surveyed as part of the study, 52.5 million listed at least one durable skill. Furthermore, the most in-demand skills that appeared in job postings were communication (22.7 million), customer service (17.1 million), management (16.9 million), leadership (15.5 million), and attention to detail (10.9 million) (America Succeeds, 2021).
Source: America Succeeds, 2021
Some skills are innate, and others can be acquired and developed through your years of training and experience in the field of social work. If you know what skills you need to improve early on, you can work on them and be better prepared to present your attributes and achievements when it is time to apply for a master’s in social work or for jobs in the field. Showing an effort to level up relevant work skills can also show your willingness to develop personally and professionally.
To get a clearer picture of the skills you might have to improve on, you can follow these steps.
This guide is just an overview of what you can do to obtain social work career requirements and how to join the profession through different paths. If you are already decided that you want to become a social worker, then planning early can be advantageous as you can prepare better for obtaining the degree, skills, and relevant experiences that are ideal for your career choice.
In case you are not yet sure that you want to study social work in college but are interested in working in the field, you can still be prepared to pivot to a social worker career in the future by ensuring you have the applicable skills and experiences that can make it easier for you to transition. Based on our team’s research, most credible sources, industry trend reports, and studies indicate that many employers are willing to overlook a different or missing degree credential if applicants have the skills and experience they are looking for. Some roles, however, will require licensure and a background in SWE. Luckily, you can opt for an accelerated master of social work program or find related professions that allow you to still be involved in a similar type of work.
Whichever path you choose, your preparation and journey to becoming a social worker is an opportunity to pick up valuable skills and experiences that are applicable not only in the line of social work but in various types of work and disciplines as well. Read more on how to become licensed clinical social worker.