Millennials officially surpassed baby boomers as America’s largest generation in 2019—a result of the rising boomer death rate and Millenial immigration. There will be more Generation Xers than boomers in a few years, too.
What does this have to do with the future of social work? Everything. The entire field of social work must adapt as social workers will need to meet the needs of several generations of aging Americans, help immigrants assimilate, support public health and human rights, and so much more.
In an IBM white paper entitled “The Future of Work for Social Services,” Leah Dienger argues that since social services are currently overburdened, software-based “digital workers” should be employed to support this sector. This would free social workers from much of their mundane administrative work so they could spend more of their time helping their clients.
Whatever the proposed solutions, in the future, social work will need new, better practices to meet the demand for help. Issues like burnout and poor support systems cause social workers to flee the field. With frontline social worker turnover rates ranging from 30 to over 50 percent every year, the field—and our country—face a crisis.
Will social workers be needed in the future? Absolutely, but if things don’t change, social workers may struggle to provide all the services people need.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that social work will grow by 12 percent between 2020 and 2030. That means an average of 78,300 job openings each year as workers retire or change careers.
Not all social work jobs grow at the same rate; many are outpacing the industry. For instance, the BLS projects both the child, family, and school and healthcare social work sectors to grow by 13 percent, while mental health and substance abuse social work should grow by 15 percent. The BLS projects all other social work occupations to increase by just six percent during this period. Causes include an aging population, more kids entering the school system, and rising substance abuse rates resulting from the pandemic.
Technology allows for more impactful social work services, and it makes social workers’ jobs easier, which could drive higher retention rates. Dienger envisions a world where social workers use digital workers—robots that can perform administrative duties, allowing social workers to focus on face-to-face casework. For instance, a digital worker can use artificial intelligence applications to approve benefits or foster home applications. Considering social workers spend 80 percent of their day on administrative work, the benefits of digital workers could be considerable.
In 2017, top social work organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), approved a set of technological standards. The 64-page paper includes a code of ethics for using technology in interventions, fundraising, and social media. Social workers who employ technology must be extra-cautious with client boundaries and privacy.
Top social work jobs require higher education. If you want to provide direct social work services as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you’ll need to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) from an accredited social work program.
Then, you must complete your state’s licensing requirements, including clinical hours. A bachelor’s degree in social work is not necessary to earn a MSW, but it can help you complete your degree faster.
Many social workers benefit from specializing during their degree. MSW programs typically offer one or more specialized tracks; Tulane University of Louisiana, for example, offers two MSW certificate options (Disaster and Collective Trauma and Mental Health, Addictions, and the Family). Students complete their specialization courses alongside core MSW coursework, which includes social work history, social justice, human behavior, and direct social work practice. Students also complete a capstone project and log 900 field hours before graduating.
Completing a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or PhD in social work typically leads to the highest-paying social work jobs, including social work educator, researcher, administrator, or policy leader. It’s possible to earn six-figure salaries in these positions.
These social workers are employed at schools, individual and family service organizations, and government agencies (at every level). School social workers assess students and conduct interventions. They can address behavioral and child welfare issues stemming from a bad home situation. According to the BLS, social workers in elementary and secondary schools earn an annual mean income of $66,700.
Child and family social workers connect directly with families. Their duties can include helping clients access social services like food, education, and mental healthcare. They also work to protect children’s well-being in home settings. Social workers who provide individual and family services earn an annual mean income of $46,950.
Family social workers at government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services may work in areas such as refugee resettlement, financial services, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), foster care, and adoption. The mean income for state social workers is $52,890, while local social workers earn $64,040. The average pay for a federal social worker, according to government statistics, is $81,843.
According to Social Work Today, social workers are poised to become an essential component of the healthcare system. They can be a link between clients and practitioners, helping prevent low-income, at-risk people from being priced out of care. These professionals can work in several settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, and individual residencies. As a hospital social worker, you’ll be tasked with helping patients navigate the healthcare system. This can mean helping patients work through a diagnosis, including the financial concerns and care plan, and advocating on a client’s behalf to healthcare providers. Healthcare social workers who work in general medical and surgical hospitals earn a mean of $71,440.
One of the most in-demand areas of social work is geriatric social work. These social workers assist older clients with issues of aging, including helping the family make decisions regarding healthcare, insurance, and finances. These professionals can work in many environments, including nursing homes, hospitals, and client homes. According to the BLS, geriatric social workers in home healthcare environments and outpatient centers earn more ($67,150 and $65,090, respectively) than those at nursing care facilities ($55,510).
There are a few ways you can go with this career path. LCSWs can open a private practice to treat clients with mental illness through therapy. Having a private practice allows social workers to select their clients. Mental health and substance abuse social workers also can work in hospitals, schools, and government agencies.
Substance abuse social workers conduct assessments and create treatment plans. They work for hospitals, government agencies, and outpatient centers.
According to the BLS, mental health and substance abuse social workers earn the most at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals ($67,520), followed by local—non-school or hospital—government agencies ($63,870), outpatient centers ($57,160), individual and family services ($49,020), and residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities ($44,140).
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