Social work encompasses a wide range of fields. Graduates can work in traditional fields such as child and family, mental health, school, and gerontological social work, among other conventional fields within social work. In the last few decades, however, corporate and private organizations have enlisted the help of social workers, hiring them as human resource managers and policy analysts, among other alternative roles outside of traditional social work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field of social work is expected to expand in the next few years. Within the field, the expectation is that there will also be a demand for specialized workers to assist individuals and private, public and government organizations. Regardless of the job or the field, social work involves advocating for others, and in being advocates, social workers figure out clients’ needs and address them. In helping clients get past life challenges, whether personal or professional, social workers can find themselves working in one of three tiers of the industry.
Three categories of social work
Social workers can find themselves working in one of three categories: macro, mezzo or micro-professional environments. The only difference among the three categories relates to the type of client that the social worker assists, even though the functions of social work remain the same.
The macro view of social work makes the community the client of the social worker. From this professional perspective, the social worker works with communities indirectly to better understand the reasons for injustice. This work involves engaging in public policy, program development and research.
The social worker in a macro-level job focuses on problems at the local, state, national and international level to find solutions to them. An example of the type of work that happens at the macro level includes researching and publishing articles on the root of substance abuse in youth around the country. A social worker at this level might also implement a program that addresses a global mental health issue.
This group of social workers deals with both communities and individuals directly by working with organizations. Social workers in this environment might find themselves developing programs for a women’s advocacy organization that focuses on addressing injustices. Another good example of the type of work that a social worker does at this level includes a professional who creates a behavioral health program for employees at a company.
The social worker who works at the micro level also works directly with individuals and families who are not connected to other organizations. This is the type of work that’s typically associated with social work and usually involves counseling in a one-on-one capacity. These social workers might also serve as resources for the client in giving referrals to agencies that might assist them.
What education is required for social work?
To work in entry-level positions, a social worker must usually have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Depending on the field, some jobs will hire a degree holder who majored in psychology, sociology or other related fields. Some fields, however, require that the professional holds a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Mental health centers and institutions, schools and military organizations require the professional to obtain the MSW.
Fortunately, for social workers who hold a BSW and want to advance into another career field, institutions around the country offer online programs in social work. Florida State University, for example, offers mid-career professionals and students with a bachelor’s degree the opportunity to enroll in its online MSW program. These programs make it possible to return to school while remaining employed.
With either degree, the professional can be a generalist who works in more than one area as part of their career. However, to specialize in one specific field – for example, mental health – the person must obtain an MSW and additional credentials. While generalists have chance to work in a broad area, specializing also has benefits.
The benefits of specializing in social work
Specialization within social work brings with it many benefits for the professional. The great thing about social work is that there are numerous fields that you can work in once you have the requisite skills and credentials – for example, international, clinical and criminal justice social work and aging and elderly care. Below are a few reasons why social workers should consider specializing.
A social worker who specializes in one area ends up mastering the duties associated with the position. Because you are less likely to make mistakes, you are not slowed down and you become more productive. If working for a company, you add value to the business, which makes you a more competitive and valued employee. In the end, because the employee has reduced the incidence of making errors, there is less wastage and reduced costs. While not a direct benefit to the social worker, a more efficient worker benefits the entire organization, including the specialized worker.
Closely related to reducing the number of errors made during the workday, specializing in social work increases one’s proficiency in the area. Working in one area allows social workers to refine their skills and fine-tune any processes they use in delivering care to clients. Furthermore, a person has more time to focus on a small area to cultivate their expertise in the area. In terms of employment, being skilled in one area makes it difficult for employers to replace you, especially in cases where the employer has invested in training and educating you.
A social worker who specializes in one area knows exactly what is expected of them as an employee. This extends to hiring practices in a day and age when many employers want their hires to be specialized workers.
Career specialization provides opportunities for career advancement. Specialization within social work makes it easier for professionals to advance in a career without having to go through additional employee training.
As you become an expert in one area, employers do not have to spend so much time micro-managing your work. MSW degree holders can find themselves working independently on research or creating programs as they ascend the social work career ladder.
Prepared to use resources
The specialized social worker is trained in using the technological equipment needed for the job, something that does not always happen if the person is not trained in a specific area. Also, as part of their practicum, students are often taught the various assessments they give as part of counseling; they are taught what these measurements mean; and they are taught how to use them to help clients or communities achieve their goals.
Knowledgeable in specialization
Specialized social workers are a resource themselves. Whether dealing with a client or organization, the professional is an encyclopedia of information for those with whom they work, and if they do not know the answer, then they know where to get this information. This is especially helpful to a client in a situation where urgency is necessary, and the social worker who has specialized in their field can assist them quickly.
In some cases, specializing in an area translates into a higher salary and other benefits. Many employers are willing to pay more for professional expertise that will address the issue they need help with, and in the long run, this saves the company money on wastage. Moreover, a social worker with an MSW degree stands to increase their earning power because, in general, more education increases the likelihood of a social worker earning more money than those who stop at a BSW.
If considering specializing in a particular area, students and mid-career professionals should consider a few factors. For one, social workers should specialize in areas for which they have a passion. In general, people are more satisfied with their work if it is something that they enjoy. Another consideration to make relates to how your role as a social worker fits in with the community where you work.
A good method for deciding which path to choose is to talk to people in the prospective area. By talking with others in the field, you can get an insight into both the rewards and the challenges of the job. Furthermore, it might open opportunities to shadow or intern with a seasoned social worker to learn the true demands of the job and any trends that might impact your choice.
Finally, consider speaking with academic advisors and professors who have experience in the area. Not only do these professionals have copious resources, but they can also guide you on the best course of action in specializing in social work. Career counselors are also good resources in finding what industries are looking for social workers. With a field that is expanding, specializing has benefits to both employees and employers.