Social workers support children and adults with many different needs and often liaise closely with other professionals, such as the police or mental health services.
The sector is huge and encompasses hundreds of roles, suitable for people from various backgrounds. However, regardless of the area you choose to work in, you’ll need to combine your specialist knowledge with excellent communication and teamworking skills, empathy, resilience and an ability to build positive relationships.
What do social workers do?
Qualified social workers can work with a range of people or choose to focus on one client group or area of focus. These include:
- people adopting or fostering children
- refugees and asylum seekers
- children in care
- people experiencing domestic violence
- people with HIV/AIDS
- people with housing difficulties or who are homeless
- people with learning difficulties, mental health problems or physical and sensory impairments
- people with substance abuse issues
- people at the end of their lives
- prisoners and people on parole
- older people
What training do I need to become a qualified social worker?
If you want to be a social worker you'll need an undergraduate or masters degree in social work. You’ll also need a range of 'soft' skills (such as good communication, enthusiasm and good judgement).
All qualified social workers must be registered with the relevant regulatory body to practise as a social worker. In England, this is the Health and Care Professions Council.
Career progression for social workers
During your course, you’ll undertake placements to help you build confidence and skills. Once you’ve completed your course, you become a newly qualified social worker and will take your assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). By this time, you’ll be more familiar with different client groups and the situations they face, and can start to work your way up to advanced and strategic social worker roles.
All social workers in the UK are supported by the Professional Capabilities Framework, a document that outlines that you need to know and be able to do at different points in your career. It starts from when you begin training and covers all stages up to strategic social worker. The framework will guide you as you progress and give you goals to work towards.
Specialisms in social work careers
Social work is often broken down into work with adults and work with children and young people. Within these areas, there are further areas of focus.
Specialisms in social work with children and young people
Adoption social workers find adoptive parents for children who cannot continue to live with their birth families. Fostering social workers organise short-term and respite placements for those who are not able to stay with their family for short periods. Short-term placements last from one day to two years; respite placements may be ongoing (with a child returning to the same foster carer on several occasions) or one-off. In both cases, the child in question will already have his or her own social worker, who will work closely with the adoption and fostering team.
You can also focus on refugees and asylum seekers. Most social work in this area involves unaccompanied children, who will be placed with foster carers. As a social worker in this field, you’ll help these children gain access to accommodation, healthcare, education and employment. You’re likely to spend time liaising with support organisations, local education authorities, the immigration service and the police.
If you choose to work with children and families, you’ll have a wide range of responsibilities. However, your main aim is to promote the welfare of children in need and their families, and ensure that they’re safeguarded from harm.
If you’re employed in this area of work, you’ll support people by assessing needs and risks and arranging the services they need, such as family support or respite foster care. You’ll also liaise with other agencies such as the police and education and health professionals. Some of the people you work with can have complex needs, such as social isolation, low income, experience of drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence.
Within the specialist area of children and families social work, there are further areas of specialism – for example, providing service to children in long-term care or those leaving it, and young people who are involved in anti-social behaviour.
The primary aim of youth justice social work is to prevent offending. If you work in this field, you’ll be part of a youth offending team that’s made up of social workers and other professionals such as probation officers, police officers and teachers. You’ll work with young people who have been arrested and charged, undertaking assessments, writing court reports and supervising sentences.
You could also be involved in restorative justice conferences, which bring together young offenders and their victims, and reparation schemes, such as community work and environmental projects. Part of your work could also include running projects involving young people, such as sports and drama groups that bring them together and help them form more positive relationships.
Specialisms in adult social work
You could choose to work with people experiencing domestic abuse. People from any background can be affected, and it’ll be your job to help them move forward. You may work in a refuge and organise support for people who need longer-term accommodation, or in outreach work, where you’ll help people suffering from domestic abuse keep themselves safe.
People with long-term conditions such as HIV/AIDS are sometimes supported by social workers. If you’re involved in this, you could be working with people who have recently been diagnosed and those living with the condition, who may have more complex health and social concerns.
You can also choose to work with people who have alcohol, drug or substance abuse issues. People affected may have lost jobs, experienced marriage or family breakdown, poor health, social isolation, poor or insecure accommodation and criminal justice involvement. By the time clients are referred they have often experienced many losses, which some describe as ‘hitting rock bottom’. Your aim is to help them address their situation, access help and make changes in their lives, so you may find yourself working with individuals’ families as well as support organisations.
Palliative care social workers support people with terminal illnesses. In this field, you’ll provide practical support – such as organising help at home – and therapeutic support, such as counselling.
People who are homeless or living in poor housing are often supported by social workers. If you work in this specialism, you’re likely to work with people who have complex needs – such as mental health problems or drug abuse – that need to addressed alongside their housing problems. You’ll assess their needs and create personal housing plans that outline how people will find suitable housing and move forward, so you’ll work closely with community care services and other organisations, such as specialist debt agencies.
Some social workers focus on providing support for people with learning disabilities (sometimes referred to as learning difficulties) such as Down’s syndrome or autism. These impair or delay intellectual development, resulting in difficulties with daily living. As a social worker, you’re most likely to be working with people over 18, and your clients may have physical disabilities too, or mental health or behavioural issues. Your role is to understand their needs and create plans that help them live in the ways they want to.
Innovations in technology have had a significant impact on work in this area, as computers, photography and multimedia help service users and social workers communicate better. This means you’ll need to willing to learn about this technology and use it to build relationships with your clients.
If you work with people with mental health problems, you could be involved in many aspects of their lives. For example, you’ll help them manage their condition, and devise and implement care plans. These can involve medication, therapy and day-care facilities, all of which help services gain skills to cope and be involved in the community. People with mental health problems may have other needs, so, as a social worker in this area, you’re likely to work with multidisciplinary teams. You may be involved for just one day or for several years. Either way, you’ll need to understand the laws that relate to mental illness and help service users navigate them.
Many service users are coping with big changes – for example, when someone comes out of hospital they suddenly have to deal with finance, housing or relationship problems. You’ll need to be able to support them through these changes by developing a positive relationship with them.
Social workers who work with older people help them maintain independence and organise support that addresses their needs. Hospitals, residential homes, sheltered accommodation or service users’ homes will be the most common working environments. You could work in the public sector, private sector or voluntary sector, and you’re likely to liaise with people in other professions, such as occupational therapists, geriatricians, district nurses and GPs.
Social care for people with physical and sensory impairment focuses on assessment and care management. For example, you could need to organise in-home or residential care, or help people get funding for specialist equipment. If your client is unable to communicate, you’ll work with their relatives and friends. You could be based in a hospital’s social services department or in the community.
Many service users have both physical and sensory impairments and cases tend to be quite complex, involving other professionals such as the police, occupational therapists or psychologists.
How do I apply for graduate jobs in social work?
Look for jobs on local authority websites, in specialist publications and their websites. The British Association of Social Workers advertises jobs on its website, and recruiters such as charities may also advertise online. Check out organisations that interest you and explore their websites and social media. Jobs are advertised in the national press and national job sites too.
There’s a small number of graduate schemes that focus on social work. Like other graduate schemes, you’ll work on placements and build a range of skills – however, you’ll also study towards a qualification in social work.
When you find a job that looks right for you, you’ll need to fill in an application and attend interviews. Expect a background check as part of the recruitment process.