How Do You Become a Community Social Worker?
March 10, 2021
Community social workers are healers, fixers, carers, and advocates. Most of all, they are doers: they identify problems within the community and marshall the resources necessary to address them. All you need to join them is an MSW and a big heart.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not."
Dr. Seuss’s character, The Once-ler, could have been speaking about community social workers when he uttered the oft-quoted rhyme. Community social workers are the caregivers of the world, the ones who notice a gap in their local environment and work to fill it, making things better along the way. After completing a master’s degree in social work, they operate within local organizations and agencies to facilitate and provide social services to those in need.
From substance abuse to child services, a community social work career—and social work education—covers a lot of ground.
In this article, we'll cover:
- The pros and cons of becoming a community social worker
- The kinds of community social work careers
- The educational commitment for becoming a community social worker
- Licensure and accreditation for becoming a community social worker
- Resources for becoming a community social worker
- The typical advancement path for a community social worker
- Further accreditation or education for a community social worker
Pros and cons of becoming a community social worker
Love your community? Wish you could turn your volunteering passion into a life-long career? Community social work just might be the path for you. Community social workers can be involved in everything from community organizing and grant writing to facilitating social services such as mental health care, which means there’s plenty of room to grow within the field. There’s also plenty of room for passion and a desire to create change. Community social workers often work directly within the community they’re serving, which can be great for those who like to get involved face-to-face, rather than from behind a screen.
Of course, with any emotional attachment to one's career comes the risk of burnout. Community social workers might come up against bureaucracy, or become overwhelmed with difficult situations clients may be facing. Those hoping to bring in six figures might be disappointed as well—while social work salaries range from the mid-to-upper five figures, community social workers tend to earn less than school social workers or clinical social workers.
Those with a master’s degree gernally do make more than those with only a bachelor’s degree, but a community social work career won’t be your ticket to early retirement. Still, the career path can be incredibly emotionally fulfilling—and what’s better than that?
Kinds of community social work careers
Community social work jobs are exactly what their name suggests. Community social workers are embedded in their communities, working within an organization or agency to provide and/or coordinate social services. The type of work, however, can vary: Some community social workers specialize in mental health or substance abuse, while others work primarily with families and children. Some provide assessments and counseling services, while others lead a team of service providers.
Certain community social workers build awareness around services and important issues, while some dictate the services being offered. No matter your preferred work style, there’s likely a position for you.
Most of these roles fall under the classification of “macro" social work, which addresses larger-scale social issues. Still, there are clinical opportunities available as well. Clinical community social workers work at community health centers or crisis centers, or provide mental health services to members of their community through an agency or organization.
Though it’s possible to enter the field without a college degree, leadership and clinical roles will likely require both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree as well as a few years of experience.
Educational commitment to become a community social worker
While those with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree can work in the community social work field, employees with the social worker title typically must have a Master of Social Work degree, or MSW. The MSW is usually a two-year degree, earned by completing classes as well as field placements.
Curriculum topics include:
- Grant writing
- Human behavior
- Policy advocacy
- Program development
- Social justice
- Social work policy
Unlike their clinical social worker counterparts, community social workers will often take “macro"-focused classes, looking at policy, community organizing, government services, and other community-related areas. Those who hope to become community social workers might try to intern within local organizations, gaining experience to help them land a job after graduation.
Students hoping to speed up the process might consider earning a bachelor’s in social work, or BSW, then entering an accelerated master’s degree program, which would only take a year. Students without a BSW can accelerate their master’s degree process by taking summer classes, while those hoping to work while in school can extend the program by taking classes part-time. While there are online programs, hiring managers for community social work will want to see some community involvement in the form of in-person field placements.
A future social worker might want to volunteer while earning a bachelor’s degree, taking classes in areas such as psychology and public health. After graduating from a social work program and gaining licensure, social workers must continue taking classes, called Continuing Education Units, in order to stay up-to-date on the latest practices and maintain licensure.
Licensure and accreditation for becoming a community social worker
After completing a bachelor's degree and MSW, social workers typically take a licensure test to become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). The test ensures that social workers have retained what they’ve learned and are prepared to enter the field with a full awareness of ethics and core competencies. Only students who’ve graduated from CSWE-accredited programs are eligible for licensure—if you’re considering a particular program, be sure to check that it’s approved.
While the test itself is the same nationwide, licensure is controlled by each state. Those hoping to work in a certain state must be licensed in that specific state or apply to transfer their license through the state's social work board. More information on states’ licensing regulations is available through local chapters of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
LMSWs who want to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) must complete a set number of hours of supervised social work, then apply for clinical licensure. Specifics vary state to state, but most states require at least two years of clinical work before earning the “C."
Resources for becoming a community social worker
- For the best idea of what a career in community social work looks like in your area, just ask a social worker. The alumni association at your local university should be able to put you in touch with a graduate in your desired field, who can break down what their days look like, their social worker responsibilities</a?, job opportunities, and more.
- You should also try to get an understanding of the needs within the community you’ll be serving. You might consider volunteering at a local senior center or shadowing a community organizer. If you’re interested in working with substance abuse clients as a clinical social worker, for example, you might familiarize yourself with the latest treatments and evidence-based practices.
- While studying, social work students can find support from their universities and internship supervisors.
- As graduation approaches, soon-to-be social workers can reach out to local organizations and agencies to get a better idea of the job application process.
- A social work education isn’t cheap, but there are ways to help pay for it. Former military members are often eligible for significant scholarships, as are current employees of social work organizations. Many schools offer part-time pathways, so students can continue to work while they study.
- After graduation and ten years of work in the field, many social workers are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Typical advancement path for a community social worker
After earning a master’s degree in social work, many graduates seek out positions in agencies and organizations that provide social services. An LMSW might work as a program coordinator or even a program director, helping community members understand, access, and use the services available to them. That could mean leading a team of caseworkers who have yet to complete a master’s degree program, or even providing services themselves, depending on the size of the agency or organization.
Because social work is such a flexible field, it’s possible to start a career as a community social worker before moving into another specialty, or to begin as a clinical social worker before staking a claim in community social work. Working in a hospital, school, or even substance abuse center can all serve as excellent stepping stones to community work. Community social workers might also go on to become clinicians, therapists, organization presidents, policy-makers—the opportunities are virtually endless. It’s also entirely possible for a social worker to spend an entire career in community social work, moving up the ladder into a leadership position. Those who plan on building a career in community social work should look for schools that have strong macro social work pathways in order to get the most out of their social work education.
Helping people can pay off financially, too: The average social work salary is roughly $50,000 per year, while the median for those working in individual and family services is roughly $41,000 per year.
Further accreditation or education for a community social worker
The social work field is in constant flux as organizations are created, policies change, and researchers study new interventions and social services. To keep up, LMSWs are required to take regular continuing classes, called Continuing Education Units, or CEUs. This continuing education helps social workers stay up to date and maintain what they’ve learned in their master’s programs. More information can be found through the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), through which master’s programs are accredited.
Because the MSW is generally considered a terminal degree (technically you could get a PhD, but most don't, and those who do primarily teach and/or do academic research), most community social workers don’t return to school after graduating. Still, some seek additional degrees in areas such as public health. Those looking to make a career shift might study school psychology or education. These additional degrees can supplement an MSW, allowing a community social worker to better serve his or her clients. They can also help a community social worker transition into a role at a school, in policy, or a new field entirely.
Let’s face it: There’s a lot to care about, and a lot that needs to get better. By making a career out of caring, community social workers can take that first step toward helping to make their clients’ lives a little easier, and their communities are little better. Dr. Seuss would approve.
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