Career areas in social work for graduates: adoption and fostering | asylum seekers | children and families | domestic violence | HIV/AIDS | substance and drug abuse | housing and homelessness | learning disabilities | mental health | neighbourhood renewal | older people | physical and sensory impairment | youth justice
Social care is all about looking after and supporting vulnerable or needy members of society. 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. We list the specialisms open to you below. 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 are the main areas of specialism within social work?
Qualified social workers tend to choose to work in one particular area, and you can opt for the one that interests you most. The main areas in which you could work are:
- Adoption and fostering
- Refugees and asylum seekers
- Children and families
- Domestic violence
- Housing and homelessness
- Learning disabilities
- Mental health
- Neighbourhood renewal
- Physical and sensory impairment
- Older people
- Alcohol, drug and other substance misuse
Adoption social workers find adoptive families for children who cannot continue to live with their birth families, often because they come from troubled and unsafe backgrounds. Fostering social workers provide short-term and respite placements for those who are not able to live 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.
The two main aspects of adoption work are family finding for children in need of adoptive parents, and assessing potential adoptive parents. Family finding cases are referred to the adoption social worker by the child’s own social worker. Once adoption is the officially agreed plan for a child, he or she should be introduced to a new family within a year. Assessing potential adopters can take up to ten visits to their home and it can then be up to two or three years before they adopt.
Fostering work consists of recruitment and assessment, and supervision and support. Recruitment and assessment involves encouraging people to apply to become foster carers (for example by holding information evenings and taking information stalls out into the community) and then assessing them to see if they are suitable (a process that lasts between three and six months). Supervision and support is an ongoing process – social workers are assigned approved foster carers to work with and will then support them with each foster child that they take on, providing advice and guidance via home visits, the telephone and support groups.
Some adoption teams like their social workers to have experience of children and families work first. In adoption work you are likely to start by getting involved in family finding work; in fostering teams you may initially be largely involved in supervision and support. You’ll need a sound understanding of attachment theory and the factors that contribute to a child’s sense of identity. Some evening working is required and a lot of time will be spent out of the office, meeting different couples and families in their homes.
As a social worker in this field you will help service users gain access to accommodation, healthcare, education and employment, as well as attending screening interviews and tribunals. Most social work in this area involves unaccompanied children. Adults and families will usually be referred to the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), part of the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) division of the Home Office.
Asylum seekers are mostly referred by the police or immigration service. Contact begins with a screening interview, where the service user’s needs are assessed and the best course of action decided upon. Unaccompanied children are placed into the care of a local authority and are not removed from the country until they are 18 years old.
Some of your time will be spent in the office, but a lot of the time will be spent travelling to tribunals, visiting asylum seekers or liaising with organisations such as the local education authority to ensure the process runs smoothly. There may be issues to deal with outside of office hours.
You need to meet your service users in order to understand their point of view, for example, by attending a youth club for asylum seekers. Attending assessments is also important in learning about the asylum process. You’ll need to build relationships with other agencies, such as the immigration service and the police, and keep up to date with current legislation.
Children and families services have wide-ranging responsibilities to promote the welfare of children in need and their families and ensure that they are properly safeguarded from harm. Social workers employed within this area of work support service users by assessing needs and risks and arranging appropriate services.
The work involves direct contact with children, young people and families, and liaison with other agencies such as the police and education and health professionals. Services provided include family support, positive parenting, respite foster care, outreach support, child protection, packages of multi-disciplinary support and referring children and families to appropriate services and agencies.
Problems that service users face can include one or more of the following: social isolation, low income, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence. Many service users have had poor experiences of being parented, which in turn impacts on their ability to adequately parent their own children.
A new social worker undertakes a range of tasks such as duty and assessment work, direct work with children and families, and looked after children cases. Progression is supported through regular supervision, review and monitoring. A good way for a new social worker to build up their experience and confidence is to work on more complex cases with an experienced colleague.
Some flexibility is important as the job is not always nine to five, for example if you have to deal with court deadlines, emergency situations or after hours meetings. You’ll need a caring, empathic attitude and child-centred values, and the ability to stay calm in the face of confrontation and defuse tense situations.
People often associate domestic violence with physical abuse but it can occur in many different shapes and forms, including emotional and financial. While men are the usual perpetrators, women are also abusers – sisters, aunts, even mothers. Social care workers are based either in refuges or in outreach work and provide whatever help is needed, from emergency accommodation to safety plans for women still living with an abusive family member.
In refuges, a service user would be allocated a personal support worker, who would be responsible for her during the entirety of her stay. The support worker will carry out needs and risks assessments and will arrange help for any other issues, such as alcohol or drug dependencies or mental health problems. It is normal for service users to need emotional support, as many suffer from guilt, self-blame and low self-esteem. Women also often come to the refuge with children so it’s important to make sure their needs are met.
Outreach work is similar but involves working with women who are still in abusive relationships and whose risk factors need to be carefully assessed. Outreach workers will arrange meetings in a safe, neutral location (eg in their own rooms or cafés) where the woman is relaxed enough to talk. They help plan in numerous ways: thinking of ways in which women can keep themselves and their families safe, going to see solicitors with them and sorting out practicalities like housing.
Set hours for workers at a refuge are typically 9.00 am–5.00 pm, although in reality it may be unusual to clock off at 5.00 pm. Domestic violence happens all the time so out-of-hours teams deal with crises that happen in the night and at weekends. You’ll need counselling skills and a non-directive approach, so you empower your service users to make their own decisions, as well as an understanding of domestic violence dynamics.
This area of work involves providing emotional support, information and services to those affected by HIV/AIDS. You’ll work with people who have recently been diagnosed and provide long-term support to those with more complex health and social concerns.
New cases tend to be referred from treatment centres, voluntary organisations or local GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinics. The allocated social worker stays with the service user throughout the case, allowing continuity and maintaining confidentiality. Social workers provide information about the illness as well as help dealing with other issues, such as fears about transmission and the physical impact of the disease.
A case may also involve wider issues, such as an uncertain immigration status, insecure housing, a lack of support networks or the involvement of children. Much of the intervention may involve practicalities, such as accommodation, benefits, providing information and arranging homecare services, as well as recognising the impact of HIV on the whole family and assessing the needs of children who may be young carers.
Many people with HIV face social isolation, which can lead to mental health problems, so social workers liaise with voluntary services to try to put service users in touch with peer support groups. Many service users are asylum seekers so their status needs to be ascertained to find out if they have access to public benefits or family support. You’ll need counselling skills and knowledge of the medical aspects of HIV and AIDS, and how combination therapies support people’s health. Another part of the job is helping to raise awareness and reduce the stigma attached to HIV.
This area of service involves offering support to people who use drugs or alcohol problematically or who have addiction-related needs. The key issues faced by many service users include loss of employment, 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’.
A social worker’s role involves carrying out needs assessments following referrals, in order to identify service users’ needs and to establish motivations for becoming abstinent from drugs or alcohol. The aim is to help the service user move on to treatment in residential rehabilitation. Individuals’ needs are reviewed throughout their treatment programmes and aftercare support is set up to help them in recovery. However, many local authorities around the country face difficulties finding enough money in their community care budgets to allocate funds for rehab treatment.
Assessments will often identify complex and multiple needs. For example, social workers often intervene in the lives of service users who are homeless or who have dually diagnosed needs, where mental ill health and substance misuse are interrelated. Social workers will also need to work closely with the carers and families of service users, offering them support where necessary.
New social workers might begin by carrying out social needs assessments, and shadowing and co-working cases. You’ll need a down-to-earth and non-judgemental attitude and the ability to network and liaise with other professionals.
This involves assessing housing needs, finding solutions, offering advice and working to prevent homelessness. The people you work with will often have other problems to cope with, such as mental health issues, drug abuse, a criminal record or problems with child care.
Typical cases will involve people who have been made homeless due to a family or relationship breakdown, because they are unemployed or on a low income, or because they have been evicted from their family home. Other people may be referred because they lack a suitable home, due to a medical condition for example. The work you will do will therefore depend on the case and the underlying causes of that person’s homelessness or housing need. Social workers work closely with community care services and other organisations where necessary (such as specialist debt agencies for example) to resolve issues and help people find suitable housing.
New starters will need to learn the law relating to housing issues as well as their council’s own policies and protocols. You are likely to find yourself working with clients at an early stage, with supervision from an experienced colleague. The working environment can be quite stressful, so you will need to be able to work in a team and support your colleagues.
Service users with learning disabilities (sometimes referred to as learning difficulties) have a variety of conditions, such as Down’s syndrome and autism, which impair or delay their intellectual development, resulting in difficulties with daily living. Service users tend to be aged over 18, although some work is undertaken with young people in transition (14 years upwards). Service users have a wide range of disabilities and some also have a physical disability, or mental health and behavioural problems. A social worker’s role in this field is to help service users live as independently as possible in the community.
Approximately 60% of social workers’ time is spent out in the community visiting service users and their carers, assessing new referrals and developing care plans to meet service users’ needs. A care plan might be structured around trying to get someone support to use leisure services, to attend college or to provide support at home. It might also entail helping the individual to find a job or to gain a tenancy.
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. You’ll need to be willing to learn different forms of communication. Patience and the ability to listen are also essential.
Social workers in mental health support and empower people with mental illness to take responsibility for their lives and ensure that their illness does not put them or the wider community at risk.
Social workers play a key role in implementing care packages, usually as part of a multidisciplinary team. These can include medication, therapy and use of daycare facilities, enabling the service user to gain necessary skills to cope and be involved in the community. Involvement with a service user might begin at a pre-hospital discharge meeting or after referral from a GP, and could last from a few days to several years.
Hours range from conventional to shift and out-of-hours work; both the voluntary and statutory sectors have embraced flexible and part-time working options. Mental health work can be pressured, often involving working one-to-one with severely distressed individuals, so social workers need to be able to set boundaries and divorce work from their personal lives.
A big issue for service users is coping with change; for example, when someone comes out of hospital they suddenly have to deal with finance, housing and relationships. Developing and maintaining relationships with family, friends or partners is hugely important: people with extended networks are better placed to cope in the community.
Relationship building is an important part of mental health work – this could involve something as simple as ensuring that a person has access to public transport. You’ll need to be able to access knowledge about welfare, housing and benefits issues, and you’ll also need to be aware of supplementary issues that could affect service users, such as drugs and alcohol.
Neighbourhood renewal is about building strong communities. The key is to engage residents within the community to decide what their priorities are and how they can contribute to goals such as the reduction of teenage pregnancy or the promotion of healthy eating. Services can be located around schools or community centres, healthy living centres, or youth clubs.
Families are often affected by living in poverty, problems associated with separated parents and the lack of traditional support, and the funding of support for children with disabilities. Social workers need to build up trust with service users over a long period of time to ensure they can engage the community.
Social workers may also be involved in providing day centres or drop-in services at medical surgeries. You’ll need the strength of personality to work in adverse conditions and the ability to make relationships with other people.
Social workers in this area promote independence, choice and inclusion, and combat age discrimination as well as preventing abuse. When working with older people, you need to focus on the individual and take their changing expectations and needs into account. Older people often face distressing situations relating to bereavement and isolation. They may also be affected by loss of income, status and motivation.
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.
You will be required to assess a service user’s case, discuss the outcomes of the assessment and then ensure that the service user receives the help that he or she needs. The service user’s situation is then monitored and reviewed periodically. Other professionals you may work with include occupational therapists, geriatricians, district nurses and general practitioners. You’ll need good planning skills and the ability to apply your social care knowledge.
Social care in this area focuses on the assessment and care management of service users with physical and sensory impairments. Your role might be setting up a care package for an individual to be cared for at home, finding a residential or care home for someone, or simply listening and supporting a service user or carer who is in need. Sometimes the service user is unable to communicate and a social worker’s role may be to help the family rather than the patient.
Some service users may have recently experienced physical or sensory impairment, perhaps as a result of a head injury, embolism or illness, in which case you will help them adapt to their new situation. They may face issues such as having to adjust to life in a wheelchair, being unable to see, or not being able to work or look after themselves. The role of a social worker might be to provide help at home, offer advice on what funding is available and offer emotional support, not only to the service user but also to their families.
Other individuals may have been born with physical or sensory impairments, in which case the social worker’s role might be to help them gain further support or funding. 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. You might work in a hospital’s social services department or in the community; there are also opportunities to work for a charity or voluntary organisation. You’ll need empathy, compassion and good organisational and communication skills.
The primary aim of youth justice work is to prevent offending and this is achieved through a multi-agency, partnership approach to tackle the factors contributing to youth crime. These factors include disengagement from education, training or employment, problems with parenting, mental health issues, and substance or drug misuse.
You will work in a youth offending team, made up of social workers and other professionals such as probation officers, police officers and teachers. The team works to prevent crime and offers services to young people who have been arrested and charged, by undertaking assessments, writing court reports and supervising sentences.
The length of involvement with a service user can vary from three months to five years. Part of this work includes restorative justice conferences, which bring together young offenders and their victims. This helps the victim to feel more secure and the young offender to understand that every action has a consequence. Reparation schemes, such as community work and environmental projects, are also in place to ensure young offenders repay the community for their offences.
To prevent youth crime, sports or drama groups are set up to engage and enthuse young people, and to make it easier to re-engage them in education or employment. Concepts such as ‘midnight basketball’ are used to give young people something to do at times when they are most likely to offend.
The ability to engage with and get on with young people is key to being effective in this area of work. It is also important to be enthusiastic and innovative. The work can be difficult, for example, on the rare occasions when you are involved with the small minority of young people who have committed very serious crimes. Since the youth offending team is made up of a number of agencies, good teamworking skills are essential.
What training do I need to become a qualified social worker?
If you want to be a social worker you'll need an approved professional qualification in addition to a range of 'soft' skills (such as good communication, enthusiasm and good judgement). Your qualification could be an undergraduate degree in social work or a postgraduate qualification. You need to be registered with the relevant regulatory body to practise as a social worker (as opposed to being a social care worker). In England, this is the Health and Care Professions Council.
There is a range of qualifications available to people wanting to enter other areas of social care, including degrees in occupational health and diplomas in youth work and probation work.
How do I apply for graduate jobs in social work?
Look for jobs on local authority websites and in the local and national press. It's likely that you'll have to fill in an application form (either online or paper) and, if you're successful at this stage, attend an interview. There are likely to be background checks during the application process, too.