Social Work Salary and Career Outlook

For those who are interested in talking with people, listening to problems and helping those in distress, social work may be a promising career. Social workers work in a variety of settings, including schools, mental health clinics, government agencies, hospitals, nonprofits and private practice. While all these settings will have you working with people in your community, each line of work offers its own rewards as the demands vary from one environment to the next.

There are many options for pursuing a career in social work, ranging from health care to education. To learn more about the career outlook for social workers across sectors, keep reading.

Is Social Work a Good Career Choice?

Social workers help people overcome challenges in their lives. They are involved in a wide range of circumstances, from the adoption of a child to the death of a loved one. There are, however, a variety of types. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does a great job defining the different types of social workers.

Bachelor’s social workers (BSW) can  work with community organizations, groups of individuals and policymakers on programs and services. Other social workers are able to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral and emotional disorders; these are clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW).  Those who have completed a masters in social work program and passed the required examinations are considered an MSW.

CSWs can provide individual, family, group and couples therapy and often work with clients to change behaviors, better cope with emotions or work through difficult situations. Clinical social workers often collaborate with doctors and other health care professionals to form treatment plans.

Overall, most social workers are satisfied with their careers, according to the 2017 National Social Work Workforce Study. When surveying 2017 graduates, new social workers were generally satisfied with their jobs and their benefits. Later in the study, 92.2% of those surveyed said they would recommend social work as a career for others.

Employer Demand for Social Workers with Master's Degrees

Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS. This demand spikes even higher when talking about health care social workers, which is expected to grow 17% during the same time period. School counselor employment is expected to grow by 7%.

In order to access those in-demand jobs, many employers require that you obtain a master’s degree in social work. A bachelor’s in social work will open the door to some jobs, especially macro social work like policy advising, but to work in a clinical setting like a hospital or school, you’ll need to obtain a master’s degree.

In 2018, the George Washington Health Workforce Institute (GW-HWI)—in collaboration with and supported by the social work community, particularly the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)—surveyed recent graduates of Master’s of Social Work (MSW) programs across the country for the second year in a row. In this study of MSW graduates, respondents suggested there was a high demand for jobs in outpatient health care facilities, higher education institutions, government agencies (state, local or federal), residential care facilities, in-patient facilities and rehabilitation facilities.

These positions are typically only available to those who have obtained a master’s degree in social work. Worth noting is that it is not required to have a bachelors in social work to enter most MSW programs - one can pursue a masters from a variety of different backgrounds.

5 Highest-Paying Social Work Fields

As stated, there are a variety of different settings for those who want to work in social work. Some settings, like mental health and substance abuse, pay significantly less than other areas, such as health care. Here are the five highest-paying social work fields.

1. Hospital social workers

Social workers who worked in hospitals had the highest median annual wages as of May 2018, making a median salary of $60,100, according to the BLS. This includes workers who worked in state, local and private institutions and combines both clinical social workers with master’s social workers.

2. Government social workers

Another great industry for social workers to work in is state and local government agencies. As of May 2018, the median annual wage for local government social workers (excluding schools and hospitals) was $54,430, and the median salary for state government social workers was $48,590, according to the BLS.

3. Outpatient care social workers

Want to work in health care but wish to stay out of a hospital? Outpatient or ambulatory health care services offer a great alternative for social workers. According to the BLS, the median annual salary of ambulatory health care social workers was $49,840 in May 2018.

4. Child, family and school social workers

If you are interested in working with children and families, working as a child or school social worker can be an option. The average child, family or school social worker making a median annual wage of $46,270 in May 2018, according to the BLS.

5. Individual social work

If working for an agency or institution isn’t a great option for you, there is always individual social work. Individual social workers work with single patients and consult with other health care professionals. In May 2018, the median annual salary for individual social workers was $41,810, according to the BLS.

10 Great Job Opportunities for Social Workers

While seeking out higher earning potential opportunities may be a top priority, the BLS indicates that miscellaneous “other” social workers have the highest median salaries because jobs vary so widely. The median annual salary for social workers who are not child, family, school, mental health, health care or substance abuse counselors was $63,140 in May 2018.

There are many jobs you can apply to if you have a master’s of social work. The NASW includes a number of specialty practice sections that many members participate in. These include some of the many  possible careers for social workers:

  1. School social worker jobs: School social workers work with students at the elementary, high school and college levels to make sure they are reaching ideal mental, social and emotional development.
  2. Social work administrator jobs: These social workers focus on the system at large as opposed to a single patient.
  3. Substance abuse social worker jobs: As America continues to cope with the opioid epidemic, there is a growing need for social workers to help those who struggle with addiction. These social workers may work for rehabilitation centers, hospitals or state agencies.
  4. Geriatric social worker jobs: These social workers focus on issues of the growing aging population. Examples of areas of service include counseling older people and their families, health and mental health issues, case and care management, long-term care and elder abuse.
  5. Child welfare social worker jobs: These social workers may work for child protective agencies, foster services and family preservation services.
  6. Mental health social worker jobs: Providing counseling services, mental health support and coordination of care, these social workers provide services for those living with mental illness.
  7. Acute care social worker jobs: In an acute-care setting, social workers ensure their patients’ needs are met. They also advocate for their patients when dealing :with insurance providers to help them receive the most encompassing coverage possible.
  8. Case manager jobs: Often in local or state agencies, case managers oversee individuals who may need help or other social services. This is a great opportunity for those who enjoy one-on-one work.
  9. Public health advocate jobs: If you want to see beyond a single patient and instead influence policy and decision makers, you may want to pursue a career as a public health advocate. These social workers focus on big-picture issues.
  10. Clinical social worker jobs: Often working alongside medical teams, clinical social workers help treat a variety of illnesses and maladies and help coordinate care for patients in a variety of settings.

What Is the Average Salary for Social Workers?

The national median annual wage for social workers was $49,470 in May 2018, as indicated by the BLS. The lowest 10% of earners earned less than $30,750, and the highest 10% earned more than $81,400.

This can vary widely based on where you live. For example, NASW New York reports that the minimum recommended starting pay for social workers with a master’s degree is  $55,794. The recommendation goes up to $63,465 for three years’ experience. Compare this to NASW New York’s recommendation for salaries for baccalaureate social workers: $44,151 for beginning salary and $50,772 for three years’ experience.

5 Top-Paying States for Social Workers

If you’re looking for top dollar as a social worker in the United States, you may want to move. Here are the highest-paying states for social workers (as of May 2018), according to the BLS.

State

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

District of Columbia

$39.86

$82,900

Hawaii

$39.32

$81,790

Rhode Island

$36.40

$75,710

Massachusetts

$36.22

$75,340

Nevada

$36.07

$75,020