The primary purpose of social workers is to help communities meet their basic and complex needs. This can include reducing the stigma around mental health issues, dealing with child abuse cases, raising awareness on disability pay, and connecting workers to their rightful compensation. So, don’t discount the role you’ll play in keeping society in one piece.
However, before you can be a voice for the people, you must build your career first. Each subfield within social work is highly rewarding, leading to a stable income, a prestigious reputation, and a chance to reshape individual lives. But to get there, here are some tips you need to follow and lay down the foundation for a promising profession:
- Pursue advanced degrees
According to the BLS, the field of social work is rapidly growing, with an employment rate reaching an astounding 12% by 2030. To be a part of this growing workforce, you must attain a master’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is a stepping stone into the field. It is enough to land entry-level jobs and put you on desk duty, but if you want a state license to practice, ensure you get a Master of Social Work (MSW).
There are many ways you can pursue this degree. You can enroll in a college, sign up for online classes, or follow a hybrid model. For instance, by evaluating some masters of social work online degree programs, you can pinpoint the path most suitable for you and build your career in that direction. A master’s program will walk you through research work that will prepare you for your job. This results in you becoming knowledgeable, skilled, and an expert at problem-solving.
- Understand the levels in social work
Social work is an umbrella term. There is a broad range of responsibilities you have to shoulder, each occupying a different level. These will connect you to diverse populations who require your skills in getting answers to their predicaments. Here is a glimpse of what these levels look like:
- Micro-level social work. You’ll work with small groups and families at a micro level and provide one-on-one sessions to struggling individuals. Since you’re working on a minuscule scale, you will be responsible for helping people find affordable houses, guiding them to rehab centers to control the substance they use, and providing counseling for mental health conditions.
- Mezzo-level social work. You get to expand your outreach when you work at a mezzo level. Your experience will help you work with larger groups of people, such as school children, in prisons, and in hospitals. You may provide your services to pupils who struggle academically or are going through intense bullying. You may also work with inmates recovering from trauma and fresh out of rehab. Apart from counseling these individuals, you will also need to coordinate long-term care plans for their health.
- Macro-level social work. As you work at a macro level, your focus will shift from small communities to the entire population. Consequently, your responsibilities will heavily involve making policies, researching community wellness, and collaborating with public health workers to extrapolate data on the general well-being of different groups. You will also need to solve significant crises like homelessness, foster care neglect, and rehoming children from abusive households.
- Develop cultural competence
A society comprises people coming from different backgrounds with unique cultural upbringing. This regulates their everyday life and also influences the choices they make. By learning about various beliefs and practices, you are in a much better position to approach your clients respectfully, understand where they are coming from, and work around their limitations. You can also hold conversations your clients may find relatable and respond favorably to.
Cultural competence prevents you from becoming condescending, judgmental, and unintentionally discriminating against a group of people solely because of their beliefs. So no matter the religion, ethnicity, class, gender, or race you work with, be mindful of your client’s identity. Try taking implicit and explicit bias workshops, which can facilitate your learning and inform you on common prejudices various communities face.
- Build soft skills
You must know how to make meaningful connections with your clients, enough for them to trust and open up to you. This is where your soft skills come into play. Your confidence, empathy, and active listening matter to the people you get assigned to work with. When discussing the issue with clients, choose your words carefully, give them the space to understand, and allow them to speak without interrupting their train of thoughts. Learn to control your emotions and listen to their experience, story, and perception without lashing out at them.
- Know your limitations
Your job in maintaining and caring for the community can often weigh down on you. Witnessing first-hand accounts of human suffering, dealing with demanding clients, and sometimes pulling back from a case can make you feel like you failed at your job. Likewise, violent and aggressive clients can leave a mark on you emotionally, filling you with dread, PTSD, and anxiety that can shatter your mental peace. You may also have moments when you cannot have a breakthrough with a client or get a case dismissed in court because of a lack of evidence. These are a part of being a social worker and can be a great source of distress for you, which is why you need to draw your boundaries.
When you feel you can’t handle a case, talk to your mentor or speak with a superior to reassign it. Don’t try to address complex issues alone, and make sure you inform the police to assist you in de-escalating the situation. If you feel mental turmoil, take time off from work and seek therapy. Being a social worker doesn’t make you immune to tragedies. You are only an asset to the community when you practice self-care, can maintain your composure and don’t project your baggage onto your clients.
- Go for specialization
Specialization opens up more job opportunities for you, boosting your standing as a social worker. Typical areas of specialization include gerontology, child and family social work, clinical social work, trauma and impersonal violence, and in some cases, international social work. There are also positions in administrative work, which may include working as a policymaker and social service director.
To earn a specialization, you must complete certain hours and relevant fieldwork before you are legible to submit an application and get certified by the National Association of Social Workers Certifications. This gives you the license and proof of legitimacy, allowing you to expand your career. For example, you can specialize in mental health or addictions as a clinical social worker. Your study area will focus on assessing clients, developing a diagnosis, and treating the ailment according to the prescribed psychological framework. You can also work in several settings such as clinics, start your private practice or participate in community centers.
Your state will also determine the exams you will have to give. If you happen to be in California, you will need to register as an associate clinical social worker and pass the California law and ethics exam before you get screened for a background check. Then you must complete over 3,000 supervised social hours over 104 weeks before appearing for the clinical examination and getting your license.
Social work is all about community wellness. But before you can be an asset to the local population, you must cross many hurdles. Your career only starts when you have the educational qualifications to apply for higher positions. There are many levels to social working, and identifying where you fit can help you pick up the skills you need. If you are ambitious to be more than another average social worker, launch your projects that center the community and help them out in any way you can. But, acknowledge when you need a break and don’t force yourself when you are in bad shape. Finally, you can pursue your career by specializing and exposing yourself to better opportunities.