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What Does a Social Worker Do? Licensing Requirements and Social Work Careers

Updated on April 1, 2015

The True Mission of Social Work (songs by Carole King)

What is a Social Worker?

Having been in and out of the social work profession for over twenty years, I have often been asked, "What does a social worker do?"

Social workers get a bad rap, largely in part to the images from television dramas of self-righteous social workers coming in to take screaming children from their parents. Many people can't think what a social worker would do besides take kids away from their parents and put them into foster care. That idea is so far from the truth, as social workers are useful--and utilized--in so many fields.

Contrary to popular opinion, social workers are not around to give hand-outs, either. The goal of social work is to empower people to have better lives, not enable them to continue as they are. Social workers work in a number of fields in an effort to improve lives and communities as a whole. Social workers work to make the world a better place for everyone.

Social Workers Must Be Licensed to Call Themselves Social Workers!

My Social Work License
My Social Work License | Source

My Social Work Experiences

My undergraduate degree was in social work. Even before graduating, the social work student gets experience in a variety of fields. The entire senior year, besides a few classes, consists of two semester long internships. Prior to this field experience, social work students take practical classes on such topics as childhood and adolescence, juvenile delinquency, aging, death and dying, client and community. Research, statistics, and policy courses are a must, too.

One of my classes took field trips to area agencies. When volunteer work was required, I chose the Battered Women's Shelter, helping out there mostly with watching the children. Later, I volunteered at the Youth Shelter as a mentor to runaways.

My main interests were working with the elderly or with children--opposite ends of the spectrum with amazing similarities. My first internship was at a retirement facility and my second at a therapeutic preschool for abused and neglected children. Ironically, I was hired on after college at the preschool as a protective service worker, where I worked five years and later at the retirement facility, where I worked as a social worker in the skilled nursing facility for another five years.

Housed at the children's facility was tough, as I got close to the children while working with their families.Contrary to popular belief, the goal of protective services is to keep families together, not separate them. To this end, I wrote case plans, progress notes, and court reports. I testified in court when necessary, making appropriate recommendations. I made regular home visits, helped with transportation, food, and other resources. I co-led a parenting class and helped take children to doctor's appointments. It felt good when a family improved their circumstances and the case could be closed.

Working with the elderly was emotional, too, at times. Working in family systems is always challenging, dealing with the different perspectives from patient, family, and the professionals involved. Continual paperwork for admissions and discharges, assessments, resource referrals, family and professional meetings, support at end-of-life, adhering to state and federal regulations--all of this makes for a highly stressful job.

My Library: Review of Social Work Ethics Code
My Library: Review of Social Work Ethics Code | Source

Social Work Education and Licensing Requirements

I would bet that the majority of people do not know how much education is required of a social worker. While not all states require the same, many are similar in their requirements. My state requires a four year degree in social work from an accredited college. Still, that person cannot be called a social worker until passing the state licensing exam and becoming a licensed social worker (LSW).

With a master's in social work, the candidate now has experience with mental illness and intervention and can go on to study for a licensure exam to become an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). With this degree, the social worker is competent to provide counseling and is often given preference to positions in mental health settings.

Ongoing continuing education requirements must be met in order to keep one's license. In Arkansas, social workers are required to obtain 48 hours over a two-year period. This time requirement can be a challenge, but the education required keeps social workers on top of the latest information, research, trends, and resources in order to best advocate for clients.

Social Work Jobs with Children & Teens

Many settings that work with children employ social workers. Social workers work with families in an effort to provide better homes. Social workers are the best in finding resources such as aid to single parents, food assistance, child care vouchers, parenting classes, job training, and other services to help families get back on their feet.

In many settings, social workers work as a liason between kids, their families, and professionals, such as school personnel and court officials. They deal with issues such as truancy and family issues, working with schools to help them better deal with troubled youth and get them back in school.

Here are settings that employ social workers:

  • family service departments
  • foster care services
  • adoption agencies
  • therapeutic preschools
  • Head Start programs
  • youth shelters
  • programs for runaways
  • doctors' offices
  • school systems
  • court system (as child advocate)
  • hospitals

Social Work Jobs with the Elderly

Social workers are utilized in settings with the elderly in various roles. They complete lots of paperwork, much of it governmental, with admissions and discharges. They work with families and professionals involved in patients' care. They (if licensed for) offer counseling, or at least support services. They conduct depression and memory tests and make referrals based on the results.

From conducting assessments and referring to needed resources, to providing services and support (not just for the elderly) during end-of-life Hospice care, social workers can be an invaluable resource for patients and their families.

Here are some of the agencies for the aged that utilize social workers:

  • nursing homes
  • assisted living
  • retirement facilities
  • Area Agencies on Aging
  • Hospice
  • Adult Protective Services
  • medical (geriatric) clinics and doctor's offices
  • hospitals
  • senior centers
  • Alzheimer's associations

Social Workers in Rehabilitation Settings

Social workers are used in rehab settings to assess patients all of all ages and obtain services for them, coordinating their discharge home or to another facility. With the correct licensing, social workers can offer counseling in these settings.

  • rehabilitation hospital for physical, occupational, and speech therapy
  • rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse
  • mental health center, whether in-patient or out-patient
  • centers for those with disabilities

Social workers, depending on the state and level of licensure required, may also open their own private practice to provide counseling to clients.

Social Workers in Various Other Settings

Social workers help people of all ages, race, religion, gender, or social status. Another misconception is that social workers only help the poor. However, many problems in society such as child and spousal abuse, and rehabilitation needs are not isolated to one socio-economic group.

Other places where social workers work:

  • battered women's shelters
  • rape crisis
  • suicide intervention
  • disability and special needs programs
  • homeless shelters
  • research and policy-making positions
  • administration

Social Work Value in Society

This article just begins to touch on the value of social workers. There is so much involved in what the profession involves that separate articles could be written on each of the fields that utilize social workers.

By nature of the social worker's job, problems will always exist. Problems and issues are what a social worker is there to help solve. Social work jobs are hectic and stressful, resulting in a high turnover rate in social work positions.

Remember that all employees of social service agencies are not necessarily licensed social workers and should not call themselves by the name of "social worker." Social workers are well-educated, duly licensed, and follow state as well as a stringent National Code of Ethics. Their licenses can be suspended if these codes are violated.

Social workers are a tough breed. Between society's vague knowledge of their role and the low (often pitifully low) pay they take in, becoming a social worker is a pull of the heart. A true social worker strives to empower people and to right what is wrong in the world.

Test your Knowledge of a Social Worker

Did you know before reading this article what a social worker did?

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© 2012 Victoria Lynn


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    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      tilsontitan--Thanks for your input. Overall, I think social workers are great people!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Peg, that's great to hear! Social workers are the go-to people for resources!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Mary, I did get too involved in my positions with the children and the elderly. That must be some of the reason the turnover rate is so high. It's a highly stressful profession, with little compensation. Thanks for reading and sharing!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      4 years ago from New York

      Enlightening the public is always a good idea. This hub certainly lets people know of the good social workers do. I am very grateful for the work you have done helping others.

      I have worked with social workers over the years so I was familiar with most of what you said, however, enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the info.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      4 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      You're truly to be admired for the generous work you do in helping others. I've had such positive interactions with the social workers I've met and their help has been deeply appreciated.

      At the rehab hospital where my aunt was recovering from ankle surgery, they made sure she was discharged with all the proper equipment she would need when she returned home like a wheelchair, transfer tub and toilet accessories. They were also instrumental in keeping her mind active after surgery through cognitive exercises.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      4 years ago from Florida

      The work of a social worker can certainly be varied, and it sounds like a very rewarding profession. I think I would get too personally involved in people's lives, though, like the elderly and the children.

      Very informative Hub. Voted UP and shared.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Denise--I'm glad you appreciate the hub! My bachelor's degree is in social work (and Spanish later). My grad degree is in English. Thanks for the votes and sharing!!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Vicki-what a useful hub, I'm so glad you gave examples for each area and a detailed explanation. Because of my hospital experience, I've worked side by side with many awesome S.W's. What is your grad degree in?

      Voted up/A/U/I for an outstanding hub. Will share.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      LQWilliams--You're right in that there are so many different types of social work jobs out there. It can be such a challenge, too, figuring out the best way to handle a situation. Thanks for your input!

    • LQWILLIams profile image


      6 years ago

      Great hub. I am a social worker and people ask me all the time what I do... lol... I am currently a medical social worker but I spent most of my career so far in Child Protective Services. I was also a therapist for many years and I have worked with every population there is. That's one great thing about social work. There are so many possible paths and there is never a dull moment... lol... Social workers are a fairly new concept at the hospital where I work and people are always asking what I do... I tell them I do it all... lol... or I say I am here to help so what do you need... I really encourage my medical team to just bring me the problem instead of giving them a concrete list of what I do because I can never list everything I am capable of doing and I don't want them to assume that I can't help simply because it's not on the list. I love being a social worker. It was defintely the right job choice for me.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      torrilynn, I'm glad the article cleared things up for you. I think that social work is a very honorable profession. Thanks for reading!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      justateacher--I'm so glad you appreciate your school social worker. I wish that more schools had them. Many don't!

    • torrilynn profile image


      6 years ago

      hi victoria,

      ive always wondered what the role of a social worker was

      i remember when my mom tried suggested i be one i said no

      mainly because of the misconceived notions about what they do

      and who they are. thanks for clearing that up for me.

      voted up.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      6 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      As a special ed teacher, I LOVE our school social worker! I don't know what we would do without her. You have given great insight on the job as a social worker!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      techygran--That is so sad that so many social service agencies aren't given the priority that is needed. Sounds like you've had quite the experiences. I wanted to write an article to explain that social work is more about just taking kids away from home, as we often see on TV; that's why I wrote this hub. Thanks so much for your input!

    • techygran profile image


      6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Excellent hub Victoria... I worked as a social worker for 20+ years as well, in a wonderful agency called a "family support centre" with a mandate to support families and single women who had experienced relationship violence as they journeyed towards wholeness. I believe that I might have been the only "worker" there who had the opportunity to work in every one of the positions: as the social worker in the day care, as a parenting programmer and facilitator, as an outreach worker, counselor and facilitator in both the teen parenting programs and the domestic violence unit. Working there was a very positive experience because of the positive feedback from clients. Alas, as is often the case, this very pro-active agency was disbanded so that the scant funding available to social services could be applied in the familiar emergency and stop-gap ways. Thank you for sharing a perspective that not many outside social work get a glimpse at!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, teaches. It can be so hard, too. Did your sis-in-law get burned out on it? Still, the success stories are wonderful.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      Social workers are such special people who have a heart for helping others. My sister-in-law practiced this for years but left the field for other work. It was always heart warming to hear great success stories from her experiences.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, Carol. I'm glad I could capture a glimpse of what all a social worker does.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      suzette--You are so right! The public has no clue--about teaching, too! Glad you can appreciate the hub! Thanks!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Becky--I'm so excited about your post and career! Social work is such a needed profession. The danger is the burnout caused by caring too much, the stress, the low pay. Having a master's will help as you will have more opportunity and compensation. So glad you stopped by!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      It is amazing to me to put all those different venues under one title of social worker. They ae found in so many areas of life. You did a great job and I certainly voted up.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      klanguedoc--Thanks for your wonderful words and examples. I'm not currently in the field but am keeping up my license in case I return. It is unreal how so many people are just trying to survive one day at a time. Thanks again for your comments!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      rcrumple--You're funny. Seriously, I think social work IS an honorable profession. I'm glad I got that across. Thanks!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      KDuBarry--Thanks for the feedback. Yes, social workers fill so many roles. Taking kids from their home is not the goal! :-)

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Social work is like teaching - the public does not really know or understand all that is part of the job description. This is such an interesting and informative article that fully explains what a social worker is and does and places they are employed. You have done a wonderful job of explaining and informing the public on this profession. Voted up!

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 

      7 years ago from San Diego, CA

      victorialynn- I was excited when I saw the tittle for your hub in my news feed. I just graduated with my bachelors in sociology and criminology and I know I'm going to go back for my masters because I want to do some sort of social work/case work. I have my fingers crossed right now for a job/intern where you work with middle school kids who are at risk for gang involvement. Glad to know we share this same passion and interest!

      Very informative read, thanks :)

    • klanguedoc profile image

      Kevin Languedoc 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Victoria Lynn, your hub was very enlightening and has help me better understand your field. I know that your field of work is very tough and seems to be emotionally draining. I guess you experience some incredible lows and possibly some highs when families work out their issues. I don't if I would have the strength of character to do the life changing work that you do. I once delivered a Christmas basket with my wife to a needy family in a project and I know, although very briefly, the struggle some people and families must endure just to make it to the next day.

      I take my hat off to you and everyone else in your profession, you are truly wonder workers.

    • rcrumple profile image


      7 years ago from Kentucky

      Last time I had dealings with a social worker was when they came to the trailer and took away 16 of my kids, saying they couldn't all sleep in one room. There went my checks! (sorry, couldn't resist)

      Great Hub! Extremely informative to see the entire spectrum instead only a narrow look. You bring your field honor!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Victoria, you have done justice for your field by opening the public's eye on what, exactly, Social Workers are for. I remember at my old job there was a woman who worked once a week and was a social worker for five days a week. Everyone assumed that she worked with taking children from their homes, but there are other careers in the field as you pointed out. Great job! Voted up and shared :)

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      GiblinGirl--thanks so much. Glad it was informative for you!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Effer, I do it ALL! haha, just joking. I have done a lot in social work and teaching, though--back and forth, it seems.

      I think there are probably people in every profession who make mistakes and give everyone else a bad name. I think that social work is an honorable profession and I'm proud to be one. I will always have a heart for social work and am keeping my license active in case I want to delve into it again, even part-time. Who knows? I like teaching college courses, but if I had to choose public schools or social work, I would choose social work. :-)

      Good to see you again! Glitches all fixed?

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, Josh! Glad you got something from it!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, Janine! I think social workers are important in so many ways! Thanks for sharing the hub!

    • GiblinGirl profile image


      7 years ago from New Jersey

      Great hub. Very informative. I didn't know how many different arenas social workers touch upon. They certainly play an important role in society and it's good to get this information out there.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      7 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Vee....Is there anything you don't do? You are a woman of many hats and talents...for sure!.

      I have not one but several friends in Social work and have a fairly good handle on their job description.

      Yes, they do and have taken a number of cheap shots. Some due to the media, cases that become nightmares and poor public image. However, I am also painfully aware of cases that were blatantly bad moves and decisions on the part of Social Services. It's a mix of both.

      I do know for certain, Social work would have been on the bottom of my list for career choices, many years ago. Are you glad you chose teaching?? UP++

    • josh3418 profile image

      Joshua Zerbini 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania


      Very fascinating article Vicki! I did not have a whole lot of knowledge coming into this read, but I am leaving with so much useful information. Thanks!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, REalH, for being the first to comment!!! I'm glad you can appreciate social workers. I went it into it with my first degree out of college. It's so hard and I was burned out within a few years, so it was a while before I could go back into it in a different field. It's such a valuable profession. Thanks for commenting, Kelly!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Victoria, awesome article on what are the many varied jobs a social worker can do. My great-aunt is retired now, but was a social worker. So I knew a bit from her ovr the years as I was growing up what her job entailed, but truly loved reading your article to find what else one trained in social work can do. Have voted and shared too.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Hey Vicki great article about different types of things a social worker does. I had a fairly good idea - didn't think about how people might see it but I always thought it was a great job!

      Having a back ground in medical I knew several girls (and have a sister) that are in social work. I always thought it would be cool to be in the social work dept at the hospital! But I do know that is seriously very stressful.

      Good for you and everyone that goes into that field. I see them as people who contribute to society in some way to make it better. Excellent hub!


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