Social workers aim to help individuals and communities realize their full potential. These social workers work in various settings, such as schools, healthcare organizations, and corporate environments. Social workers may work in general or specialized settings, such as mental health.
Due to the growing demand for placing people in occupations or communities to help others, experts project the field will grow considerably. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job growth in this field will increase by nine percent by 2031, which is higher than the average for all occupations. This nine percent growth will translate into roughly 74,700 social working positions opening annually until 2031.
How does one enter social work?
Jobs in social work typically require the person to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited degree program. Following graduation, you can work in any field related to human behavior, cultural diversity, social welfare policy, social work, diversity and oppression, research, or human rights. Students can enroll in these programs either in face-to-face settings or online with an in-person field placement.
If you decide to advance in the field, many higher-level positions require a master’s degree in social work. Professionals who return to school to earn their master’s degree can attend an MSW online program, allowing them to work towards a degree while continuing in their current job. Regardless of the type of degree program, whether it is online or in-person, all social work students must complete an in-person field placement to help prepare them for the demands of social work.
What is field work and why must social workers do it?
Field placements expose students to the realities of the job and help build the skills necessary to work successfully in this occupation. Fieldwork might come in the form of a practicum or internship. Both types of fieldwork allow students to apply the book knowledge they acquire in the classroom to real-world professional experiences. It also presents students with the chance to observe social work professionals working with people in the community they support. Each program establishes guidelines for what constitutes social work and how many fieldwork hours must be completed as a part of the degree program.
Students who gain fieldwork experience through a practicum do so as part of their enrolled courses. As a part of the practicum, students shadow social work professionals, usually on a limited basis, often once a week. Depending on the parameters of the practicum, students might go beyond observing the professional to taking on some of the responsibilities under the close supervision of the professional. This practicum also presents opportunities for reflection where students reflect upon their experiences in the practicum and discuss them with their supervisors and professors.
Alternatively, students participate in an internship after finishing most or all their social work degree program. Whether part-time or full-time, the training places students in the social work environment of their specialization where they independently apply what they learned to the job without direct supervision. Students typically participate in internships closely aligned with the field they plan to enter.
Field work settings
Social work students can find themselves working in a variety of settings, such as:
- Counseling/mental health services center
Students who intend to be counselors or therapists might find themselves in counseling/mental health service centers. Here, students get hands-on experience working with people from diverse backgrounds.
- Healthcare organizations
Social workers are needed in healthcare centers to help patients unfamiliar with healthcare bureaucracy navigate the environment. This field placement prepares students to work with patients in various ways.
Students who wish to work in public schools or the university environment as counselors can often complete fieldwork in this setting. Students who earn a Master of Social Work degree will find themselves completing two fieldwork placements.
The first placement is to master the basic skills related to the field. For example, they might engage in assessments, shadowing, interviewing, case planning, research, and reporting. Their second field placement typically prepares them for their specialization, which can entail community involvement, program development, implementing trauma interventions, policy change advocacy or direct therapeutic services.
Including fieldwork as part of the degree program provides students with two main advantages. The first benefit is that it allows students to gain hands-on experience in the area they plan to enter. By the time they finish their degree program, students are typically comfortable and capable of handling the myriad of situations that may arise as social workers. The internship/practicum provides students with the chance to reflect, gain experience, make mistakes and learn under a professional’s guidance, so when they encounter issues after graduation, they are fully prepared to handle them.
Fieldwork also allows students to develop skills in a particular area. While students learn general knowledge about social work, fieldwork can build upon the knowledge learned in the general study of the subject and how it is applied to workplace situations. In the general study of social work, social workers may learn how to help students in a middle school environment; however, fieldwork can also help social workers specializing in special education to learn how to work with special needs students with ADHD and other learning difficulties.
Fieldwork has one more advantage. It provides those preparing for the profession with valuable opportunities to receive feedback from their supervisors to support their growth in the field. Students receive this feedback in a safe space where they are encouraged to learn from their weaknesses or focus on their strengths.
The supervising professional guides the social work student, and in some cases, can be the support the student needs when things become challenging. Fieldwork feedback is also an opportunity for students to ask questions. Ultimately, this feedback can be the basis of a long-term mentor-mentee relationship for students.