Social Work

How to Become an Air Force Social Worker (Step One: Aim High!)

How to Become an Air Force Social Worker (Step One: Aim High!)
Air Force social work, like other areas of military social work, is also integral to the core mission of the social work profession. Image from Unsplash
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert November 11, 2019

As an Air Force social worker, you'll serve not only airmen and airwomen but also their families and Air Force veterans. It's a broad-ranging practice encompassing everything from family counseling to PTSD, all in the service of those who defend our country.

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Social work has a long and noble history in the United States military. According to the National Association of Social Workers(NASW), the US Army utilized Red Cross social workers during World War I; the Department of Veteran Affairs added social workers to its staff in 1926. By 1945, the military was commissioning social workers as officers, an acknowledgment of their stature and the significance of their contribution. Today, social workers are integral to the functioning of every military branch.

The support Air Force social workers provide to military personnel and their families is life-changing. Air Force social workers are needed to help airmen and airwomen overcome the daunting challenges that can accompany military service—from suicide risk to PTSD to substance abuse.

Air Force social work, like other areas of military social work, is also integral to the core mission of the social work profession. In a report about about social work in the military, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) explains: “Military social work, as a field of practice and research, is critical to our relevance as social workers, to the advancement of new career options, and in our leadership among the helping professions.”

You can join the ranks of these crucial service providers by becoming an Air Force social worker. This article explains how. It covers:

  • What Air Force social workers do
  • Educational commitment for an Air Force social worker
  • Licensure and accreditation for Air Force social workers
  • What is the average Air Force social worker salary?
  • Additional licensure and accreditation for Air Force social workers
  • The pros and cons of becoming an Air Force social worker
  • Resources for military and Air Force social work students
  • Should you become an Air Force social worker?

What Air Force social workers do

Air Force social workers provide services in a variety of settings:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Offices
  • Hospitals
  • Substance abuse facilities
  • Family advocacy centers
  • Other healthcare-related services, both on- and off-base

Air Force social work focuses on clinical services, interventions, and treatment. As clinicians, Air Force social workers perform assessments for the psycho-social and mental support of individuals, groups, and families. They evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders and offer therapy; in addition, Air Force social workers support and advocate for both active and retired veterans in the community.

Air Force social workers also serve in leadership positions, making recommendations on policies and processes for medical staff, commanders, and base agencies, and informing critical event debriefings. Some Air Force social workers conduct research and develop training and management programs for military personnel.

To be effective in this role, you need to recognize that Air Force families are a unique population with special needs. Military families must manage the stressors associated with military life, frequent relocation, deployment, and a service member’s return from duty, which can involve long-term separations, abuse, PTSD, suicide risk, and substance abuse.

Working with Air Force families, Air Force social workers perform functions such as military-to-civilian support, individual, group and family counseling, and crisis support. They also provide assistance with securing housing, health and employment, and navigating benefits.

Treating the airmen and airwomen of the Air Force

Working for the Air Force requires specific knowledge of Air Force culture, its missions, and communities.

Many people mistakenly assume that all airmen and airwomen fly planes and helicopters. While the Air Force certainly centers on flight, those who actually fly make up only a small percentage of personnel. “Most airmen and airwomen work on flight support missions, handling base affairs, protecting bases, constructing new airstrips, guarding missile sites, even doing rescues.”

According to the US military’s official website, missions Air Force personnel support include:

  • Cargo transport from base to base for any of the branches
  • Bombing runs
  • Close air support (CAS) for on-the-ground missions
  • Jetfighter patrols to protect airports, strategic locations, etc.
  • Airborne mapping and monitoring of targets
  • Maintenance of aerospace systems and planes
  • Security provision for bases, embassies, airports, and other facilities
  • New base construction
  • In-flight refueling
  • Special rescue missions behind enemy lines
  • Medical service in impoverished areas
  • Food and supplies distribution around the world

Day-to-day life in the Air Force depends on the rank and mission of the service member. Even so, Air Force personnel and their families share common experiences and challenges related to Air Force life and culture.

Airmen and airwomen must deal with the stresses of active duty and, for some, deployment to conflict zones. Your practice will include soldiers who have survived enemy fire, sustained devastating injury, and experienced other traumatizing events. Some face a lifetime of emotional recovery or disability. These can result in multiple concurrent mental, behavioral, and physical conditions.

As an Air Force social worker, you’ll encounter these conditions and stressors:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Physical injuries and disability
  • Chronic pain
  • Difficulty with military-to-civilian life reintegration
  • Marital and family conflict
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Anger and aggression
  • Suicide risk and ideation
  • Criminal activity and violence
  • Interpersonal and domestic violence
  • Financial and work stressors
  • Lack of civilian career readiness

But the psycho-social impacts of enlistment reach farther than the active-duty personnel who serve. Deployment and military service affect loved ones at home. A primary focus of Air Force social worker is on family advocacy, a high-need area for social work support and intervention.

Impacts that Air Force families face include:

  • Frequent relocation to different military bases around the world
  • The absence of family members for extended periods
  • The returning service member’s readjustment to family and civilian life
  • Managing physical injury and disability of their loved one
  • Domestic and family violence
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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Educational commitment to become an Air Force social worker

One of the most common pathways to civilian Air Force social work is to enroll in an accredited CSWE Masters of Social Work (MSW) program with a dedicated military social work track. Formalized military social work coursework provides specialized knowledge for the training of future military social work practitioners. MSW students become familiar with military culture and principles, learn about the systems of care in place for Air Force personnel, and develop an area of expertise in military clinical practice.

Attending an MSW program with a military track allows MSW students to focus on military issues. It also typically facilitates field placement in an Air Force or related military setting.

Schools offering a military social work track include:

  • Dominican University Graduate School of Social Work__: DU’s School of Social Work offers a concentration in “working with the military and their families.” The program offers diversity training (with a focus on Latinx communities) as well as courses in military culture and policy and the military. It is offered both on-campus and online.
  • Fayetteville State University: FSU was the first university to collaborate with the US Army (Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg, the most populous military installation in the world) to offer an MSW to active-duty soldiers. The program is also offered off-campus at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. The school offers an 18-credit military behavioral health certificate with coursework in substance abuse intervention, military families, trauma, crisis intervention, and concussion support care.
  • Monmouth University School of Social Work__: The Coming Home Project offered by the School of Social Work at Monmouth University prepares social work students to support and provide services to returning career, reservist, and National Guard military personnel and their dependents.
  • Smith College: At Smith, MSW students can complete clinical internships at Walter Reed National Medical Center and 17 Veterans Administration hospital settings throughout the country. The MSW curriculum is “embedded with content relevant to the care of veterans, service members, and their families,” including courses on the neurobiology of trauma and military-focused research.
  • SUNY Empire State College: SUNY Empire State offers a 12-credit online graduate certificate in veterans services. The program consists of four courses: Veteran Services and Public Policy; Veteran Outreach, Services, and Advocacy; Veteran Programs and Benefits; Military and Veteran Culture: Developing Cultural Competency
  • University of Central Florida: UCF offers MSW students the opportunity to pursue a graduate certificate in military social work. The nine-credit sequence includes coursework in military culture, managing combat-related disorders, and clinical practice with military and their families.
  • University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work__: The Kent School offers a military social work specialization consisting of five academic courses and two semesters of field practicum.
  • University of Southern California Dworak-Peck School of Social Work__: USC offers an intensive military social work track, the first program of its kind at a civilian research university. The program trains military social workers for work in military-impacted schools, communities, and bases. A leader in this field, the School of Social Work also offers the MSW with a military concentration in its CSWE-accredited fully online program.

Not everyone can enroll in an MSW school with a military track. Location, program format, or tuition cost can be a factor driving your school choice. Fortunately, this won’t derail your career. You can choose a generalized MSW program—accredited by the CSWE, of course—with a robust clinical curriculum and focus, and use your field assignment to specialize in a military setting such as a veteran’s hospital.

Online MSW study may also provide the same benefits. Many online MSW programs are CSWE-accredited and provide preparation in clinical social work.

You must be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) to be considered for employment by the Air Force. Most Air Force social work positions require demonstration of advanced clinical skills and at least a few years of practice experience.

How long does it take to earn a Masters of Social Work (MSW)?

A traditional campus-based MSW program typically takes two years to complete. Some programs can be completed in 18 months if students continue their studies and fieldwork assignments through the summer months.

Students who have completed their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) at an accredited CSWE college qualify for advanced standing in a Master of Social Work program. BSW students who enroll in an Advanced MSW program can earn the MSW degree in as little as one year.

Online MSW programs offer different options and timelines. Students can pursue full-time or part-time study completing the degree in two to three years. Because CSWE programs include a mandatory fieldwork component as part of their curriculum, part-time study may impose a time limit.

Licensing and accreditation for Air Force social workers

The minimum requirement for becoming an Air Force social worker is a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited school. The Air Force also requires:

  • Knowledge of social work theories, principles, techniques, and resources
  • Entry-level state license
  • At least 24 months of experience in clinical social work (completion of Air Force Social Work Internship Program may be substituted for the 12 months of the experience requirement)
  • Valid and current license by a US jurisdiction at a level allowing independent clinical social work practice
  • Completion of 5.5-week Commissioned Officer Training (COT) course
  • You must be between the ages of 18 and 41

Applicants are encouraged to obtain Board Certification through the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work or the NASW. Clinical social workers with board-certified status receive additional board certification pay.

Can a civilian become a military social worker?

The answer is yes. The Air Force hires civilian contractorsfor its clinics and hospitals. You will not be required to enlist. Technically, you’ll be working for a contracting company, not the Air Force, but you will be treating Air Force airmen and women, their families, and veterans in Air Force facilities.

You can also apply for a clinical social worker position as a civilian and then attend Commissioned Officer Training (COT) and become an enlisted officer in the Air Force. This fast-track pathway allows civilian MSWs to advance quickly to a high ranking Air Force social work position. COT immerses students in Air Force communication, leadership, management, customs, courtesies, military history, and world affairs. During COT training, you reside on a base with fellow students and receive a monthly paycheck. Social workers who have an MSW from a CSWE school, along with clinical licensure in their home state, typically start as a Captain or First Lieutenant Officer.

Finally, you can enlist in the Air Force. You could enlist at age 17 and have the Air Force foot the bill for your undergraduate and graduate education; the Air Force will pay up to 100 percent of the cost of an MSW through its tuition assistance program.

What is the average Air Force social worker salary?

Social workers in this practice area earn higher than average salaries when compared to their generally trained peers. Air Force social workers who enlist receive additional monetary perks such as tax-free housing, food allowances (for enlisted social work officers), uniform clothing allowances, 30-day vacations, and generous benefits.

According to Payscale, the average pay for a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the Air Force is $77,256. In comparison, a general social worker earns just under $60,000 annually.

MSW social workers who enlist and become an Air Force Social Worker officer do significantly better. Their average annual income is $102,704.00.

Additional accreditation and continuing education for Air Force social workers

MSW degree holders are eligible to earn an Advanced Practice Specialty Credential from the NASW. Social workers who earn these credentials are recognized as having an advanced level of expertise and knowledge that demonstrates their commitment to military social work. Acquiring these additional certification positions social workers for senior leadership positions. Credentialed social workers typically enjoy many benefits, including greater recognition for their expertise and higher pay.

Advanced NASW credentials for military social work include:

The pros and cons of becoming an Air Force social worker

Pros of becoming an Air Force social worker

  • Job security
  • 30 days of vacation each year
  • No loss of seniority when moving to other hospitals, clinics or agencies
  • Pay increases with rank and time in service
  • Savings program similar to a 401k
  • Comprehensive medical and dental plans for employees and their dependents
  • Tax-free housing and food allowances (for enlisted Air Force social workers)
  • Higher annual pay than general social workers receive
  • Ability to have a significant impact
  • Opportunity to conduct and develop research
  • Serve in leadership positions
  • Direct and inform policy decisions and protocols
  • Recommend training and management policies for personnel
  • Opportunity to travel, live and work overseas to support military teams (for enlisted Air Force social workers)

Cons of becoming an Air Force social worker:

  • Can face occupational hazards in voluntary or conscripted positions that could result in injury or death (enlisted Air Force social workers)
  • Air Force social work is a high-work-performance, high-stress specialization
  • Social workers may be on call 24/7
  • May need to relocate nationally or internationally
  • Travel, which can be detrimental to personal and family life

Resources for military and Air Force social work students

Should you become an Air Force social worker?

As an Air Force social worker, you’ll be helping not only the heroes who serve our country but their families as well. Air Force social workers’ interventions decrease the high rates of domestic abuse, suicide, depression, and PTSD among veterans. The support provided to loved ones can strengthen military families and reduce conflict.

Air Force social work is challenging, high-stakes work, but it’s well-compensated, and the mission is essential. Both civilian and enlisted officer Air Force social workers earn some of the highest salaries in the profession. In addition, the Air Force provides many opportunities to explore different cultures, advance skills, and even conduct research. Best of all, you’ll do work that honors the sacrifices made by our national heroes in the Air Force.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

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.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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