Social Work

What Are the Competencies of Social Work?

What Are the Competencies of Social Work?
To be effective, social work demands that its practitioners actively engage in learning and professional development throughout their careers. Image from Pexels
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Craig Hoffman March 9, 2022

Social work's nine competencies ensure that social workers employ critical thinking and adhere to professional behavior in service delivery to advance human rights and meet clients' needs.

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In Elevating Competence in Social Work (published in The New Social Worker), the authors assert that being competent in social work—that is, merely meeting the profession’s baseline criteria—isn’t enough. They argue that social work practice demands that social workers pursue “a never-ending push for personal and professional excellence” and a challenge “to be better than the day before.”

Indeed, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics supports this assertion, emphasizing how crucial continuing education is to social work professionals. In this document, under the section “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals,” ‘competence’ in this field requires social workers to regularly keep up with new research and literature related to their work. To be competent, social workers must “participate in continuing education relevant to social work practice and social work ethics.”

To be effective, this job demands that its practitioners actively engage in learning and professional development throughout their careers.

So, what are the competencies of social work that social workers need to continually learn about and work on to excel in their jobs? To answer this question, this article discusses:

  • The nine core competencies of social work
  • Who needs a master’s in social work?
  • What is a social work master’s?
  • Top master’s in social work programs

The nine core competencies of social work

There are nine social work competencies that describe the “knowledge, values, skills, and cognitive and affective processes that comprise the competency at the generalist level of practice.” These competency statements represent standards that social workers must adhere to daily in their service delivery.

Competency 1: Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior

Social workers can identify the values—both personal and professional—and the ethical standards of the profession. They use supervision, understand the applicable laws and regulations, and apply them at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Social workers recognize that their personal experiences, life experiences, and biases can affect their practice effectiveness, so they apply knowledge of human behavior, critical thinking principles, and ethical decision-making in practice, research, and policy.

Competency 2: Engage diversity and difference in practice

Social workers engage with diverse clients of differing gender, sexual orientation, class, age, culture, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, and marital status. They recognize that these differences are a part of their clients’ identities and form our shared society. Social workers also acknowledge that these differences can be used to single out and oppress, marginalize, impoverish, and alienate some, while providing privilege, power, and wealth to others.

Competency 3: Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice

Social workers are aware of and work to advance social justice, fundamental human rights, and economic justice through a basic standard of living. They attempt to protect the rights and well-being of marginalized groups and ensure a healthy environment and an equitable civil, economic, and cultural society for all.

Competency 4: Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice

Social workers use quantitative and qualitative research methods derived from the principles of logic, scientific inquiry, and evidence-based theories to arrive at appropriate intervention strategies. They employ research findings and education and use practice experience to advance the science of social work and incorporate findings into effective practice. Social workers are professionally bound to use research and evaluation during their work.

Competency 5: Engage in policy practice

Social workers have a working knowledge of public policy as it relates to human rights and social justice and engage in policy work to advocate for change whenever necessary. They know how their profession can bring about positive change at the local, state, and federal levels.

Competency 6: Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

Social workers regularly engage with individuals, groups, families, communities, and organizations. They use empathy, value human relationships, and understand that human behavior and society intersect in social work practice. By interacting with these wide-ranging constituencies, social workers develop strategies to advance social work effectiveness on behalf of their clients.

Competency 7: Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

Social workers assess individuals, groups, families, communities, and organizations using dynamic social work practice to advance its effectiveness. They understand human behavioral theories and apply these in the assessment of these constituencies. Social workers acknowledge the collaborative practice method in assessment processes while being aware that their personal histories and affective reactions can adversely influence their assessment and decision-making.

Competency 8: Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

Social workers use evidence-based interventions for their clients and constituencies. They utilize human behavioral theories and the social environment to critically evaluate and apply this knowledge when interacting with clients and constituencies.

Competency 9: Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

Social workers evaluate the practices they use on behalf of individuals, groups, families, communities, and organizations to improve the effectiveness of their services. Using human behavior and social environment theories, they help their clients and other stakeholders succeed. When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of their job, social workers employ both qualitative and quantitative methodologies.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

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Who needs a master’s in social work?

Social work typically requires at least an undergraduate degree—but those looking for a clinical social worker position must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting. Continued job growth in this field has boosted the demand for social workers with advanced training.

While bachelor degree holders (including those with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)) can find entry-level and direct-services positions, an MSW can lead to more advanced career paths and higher salaries. Most states require an MSW for the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) certification.

Among the more than 700,000 social workers employed in the US, the majority find positions in child, family, and school social work, followed by healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse fields. MSW degree-holders also enter nontraditional careers, such as conflict mediators, human resources counselors, and labor relations specialists.

Social work education programs in the US are represented by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a national association representing over 750 accredited baccalaureate and master’s degrees, as well as individual social work educators, practitioners, and agencies dedicated to advancing quality social work education.

What is a social work master’s?

Social work is divided into three categories: micro, macro, and mezzo. You’ll explore all in an MSW program, although your specialization will likely focus on just one. While coursework in any of these areas can overlap, you will need to decide which type of social support work you are interested in practicing. Each has a particular set of goals and populations/institutions they serve. Determining your career goals will help you choose the course of study that is right for you.

Micro social work focuses on one-on-one or family group work and is appropriate for social workers with good interpersonal skills who want to engage with clients directly. Social workers in this field work with students, patients, and staff in schools, hospitals, and other institutions, offering healthcare, social support services, mental health exams, and counseling. They may offer assistance to hospital patients awaiting release, family therapy in courthouses, substance abuse counseling for homeless people, or child welfare help for incarcerated parents.

Macro-level social workers provide direction and a framework for a more comprehensive approach to social support. This large-scale strategy can aid in the development of government social policies and community support networks, as well as advocacy for at-risk groups. This type of work can impact how the government and healthcare institutions respond to the needs of specific communities as well as how policies are implemented.

The mezzo focus of social work is found at the crossroads of macro and micro, combining work with individuals and institutions that serve their communities. Collaboration with religious organizations inside a city, in a community’s shelter system, or within a school district to guarantee that the particular needs of people within the wider systems of care are fulfilled is an example of this form of social work.

Coursework overlaps all three areas, providing you with a broad picture of social work’s impact on society. Tulane University School of Social Work’s online MSW program, for example, includes classes in human behavior, public policy, community organization, clinical-community practice, program evaluation, and a focus on data analysis and interpretation. One of the most significant components of an MSW program is field education, which assists students in determining the direction and focus of their work. To graduate, all of their MSW students must complete internships or a field practicum.

How long does it take to earn an MSW degree?

An MSW typically takes two years to complete. Some schools offer expedited programs enabling you to finish sooner. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in social work, you look into advanced standing programs, which allow you to use credits from your bachelor’s degree toward your master’s degree (and save time and money). The online advanced standing MSW program at Tulane University takes 12 months full-time or 24 months part-time to finish.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

As part of their application packet, most programs require undergraduate transcripts demonstrating a minimum GPA of 3.0, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV, and a personal essay outlining how their course of study will help you accomplish your career goals. Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) exam scores are required for some programs.


Master of Social Work programs begin with foundational courses covering social work theory and the basic principles of practice. Students are introduced to individual, family, and group practice, then continue to advanced levels in chosen concentrations.

Foundational courses focus on psychotherapy, the history and philosophy of social welfare and social work, systems theory, human behavior, ethics in practice, racism in social work practice, and research. Advanced courses explore issues of race and gender and the impact of the environment on social systems.


After completing foundational coursework, MSW students focus on specialization through elective courses. Your specialization typically aligns with your field placement and helps determine your future career path.

Social work offers a broad range of specializations at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Note that each MSW program offers only a selection of specializations. Check to ensure that the programs you are considering offer the specialization you want.

Top master’s in social work programs

Top schools that offer a master’s in social work include:

Options for online/hybrid learning

If you’re currently employed full-time and need a more flexible course of study, Tulane University of Louisiana, Rutgers University, and Virginia Commonwealth University all offer competitive online and hybrid MSW programs.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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