Social Welfare & Justice

Types of social workers: Exploring the many fields in which they serve

Types of Social Workers

Maybe you’ve always been working toward a career that can help you improve lives. Or it’s possible that a particular experience in your own life drove you to pivot toward a career in social work. No matter your circumstances, you’re curious about the different types of social workers and what they do.

There are many fields of social work, so you have options to find a role that aligns with your skills and interests. Social workers are involved in every aspect of community life and can be found in numerous settings including schools, hospitals, senior centers, and more. Regardless of which demographic you’d like to work with, there’s a fulfilling social work role out there for you. Keep reading to start exploring some of your options.

Levels of Social Work

There’s a lot of variety in social work. Most professionals work with clients from a wide range of backgrounds. Social workers can also practice at one of three levels: micro, mezzo, or macro.

  1. Micro — Professionals at this level are typically licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and work with clients in a one-on-one setting.
  2. Mezzo — Also typically LCSWs, these social workers support client systems, including families. They focus on individuals, but also loop in other people.
  3. Macro — Macro social workers aim to make societal or community progress through activities like research and lobbying.

There are opportunities for social workers to practice at every level. A social worker can, for example, help a homeless individual find housing (micro), facilitate a job-interview program for the homeless (mezzo), and advocate for community outreach (macro). As you think about the impact you hope to make, familiarize yourself with some social work careers.

10 Different Types of Social Workers and What They Do

Social work is a multifaceted profession that encompasses various practice areas. Recognizing the different types of social workers is the first step towards choosing a social work setting of interest.

1. Child welfare, family, and school social workers

Social workers in this field aim to improve the well-being of children and their families. Child welfare and family social workers might help with arranging adoptions and finding foster homes for abandoned or abused children. In the school setting, they support students by addressing truancy, behavioral problems, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. A family social worker can also help families in the event of sudden illness or loss.

To become a child welfare, family, and school social worker, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, though employers may prefer candidates to have a master’s degree with a Pupil Personnel Services credential. Additionally, school social workers need a state credential, which can be obtained through a PPS Credential in School Social Work with CWA Authorization as an add-on to a master’s in social work. Overall, there’s plenty of opportunity for these professionals, with the job market projected to grow 5 percent to 8 percent through 2032.

2. Community social workers

Community social workers serve a wide range of individuals, often overseeing community-wide programs aimed at meeting the needs of underserved populations. They might plan and administer a local food bank or set up a job-interview training program for adults who are unemployed. They may also work one-on-one with community members, assessing individual needs and making referrals to local resources.

Their work aims to benefit the community as a whole, addressing larger societal issues such as poverty and unemployment. These professionals need a bachelor’s degree in social work at minimum. Those with a master’s degree have more opportunities and are qualified to manage larger community programs and strategies. While community social work doesn’t offer the highest earning potential, with the rise in homelessness across the country, it has become an essential role. Additionally, social work assistant positions are expected to grow 9% by 2032.

3. Criminal justice social workers

Criminal justice social workers can be found in many workplace settings, including courthouses, domestic violence support centers and correctional facilities. Each role comes with unique responsibilities. Those in correctional facilities, for instance, support incarcerated individuals. That can include conducting psychiatric evaluations and eventually preparing inmates to transition back into society. They may also hold support groups for individuals dealing with substance abuse or anger management issues to prevent the cycle of reincarceration.

To become a criminal justice social worker, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s in social work. It’s also helpful to enroll in criminal justice courses. You may choose to minor in criminal justice or choose to double major. Keep in mind, some positions, like those dealing with investigative work or legal counsel, may require a master’s degree. Obtaining a master’s degree can accelerate your earning potential in the field as well.

4. Gerontological social workers

While this social work field may be unfamiliar to some, gerontological social workers will continue to be important as the baby boomer population ages. These professionals help elderly individuals maintain quality of life and live as independently as possible. Whether their clients live at home, with family, or in an assisted living facility or nursing home, social workers in this field connect their clients with various services like grocery delivery, help them apply for housing, and determine long-term care options.

Many geriatric social workers find themselves assisting clients in long-term care facilities, outpatient services, or adult protective agencies. If you’re hoping to work in this area of social work, you'll need to have a master of social work (MSW) degree. However, the investment in an MSW to become a gerontological social work can lead to an average salary of $82,685 (as of February 2024).

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

5. International social workers

Travel is a natural part of the job for international social workers, who work around the world to address social injustice and violations of civil liberties or human rights. They can work in refugee camps, providing trauma counseling and connecting individuals with resources, or at an international adoption agency, helping to facilitate the adoption process for prospective parents. These social workers must be culturally sensitive and adaptable, as they work in a variety of settings and with diverse populations. Additionally, you must be able to handle working in intense environments and situations.

Due to the challenges encountered with international social work, to become one of these professionals, you’ll need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, as well as ample exposure to other cultures. Consider gaining experience working with people from an array of backgrounds by supplementing your resume with volunteer work or studying abroad. While international social work is perfect for individuals who love to travel, it also comes with financial benefits with an average salary of $76,266 (as of March 2024).

6. Healthcare social workers

If you’ve ever been through a health crisis, you understand the physical, emotional, and fiscal stress it can cause. Healthcare social workers are trained to help people going through these types of hardships. They’re equipped to help both patients and families through chronic, acute or terminal illnesses.

These social workers collaborate with other healthcare professionals to determine patients’ needs. They might make referrals for other services, investigate child abuse or neglect, conduct research to inform social policy, and assist with Medicaid- and Medicare-related paperwork.

Most healthcare social workers need a master’s in social work in order to be competitive. There’s good news for those who do choose to pursue this path. Employment of healthcare social workers is projected to grow 10 percent through 2032.

7. Mental health and substance abuse social workers         

If you’re passionate about helping those who’ve experienced trauma, have a mental illness or are dealing with substance abuse problems, this career could be a good fit for you. Mental health and substance abuse social workers provide individual or group psychotherapy, crisis intervention for clients, and help their family members to support them. They manage cases and refer clients to various resources such as housing and outpatient treatment.

These social workers collaborate with physicians, counselors, and nurses, so well-rounded medical and psychology knowledge is important. With jobs in this social work field expected to increase 11% through 2032, higher than other fields of social work, it’s worth consideration.

8. Military social workers

Active-duty members of the military and veterans are at an increased risk of mental health issues. This means that military social workers are in high demand. Though many types of social workers can support military service members, veterans, and their families, there are three primary types of military social workers:

  1. Civilian military social workers may find themselves at U.S. military support centers, veterans’ centers, schools, or healthcare organizations in the civilian community.
  2. Active-duty military social workers are employed at medical and mental health departments on military bases to provide support for those actively serving.
  3. Veteran social workers typically work for the Department of Veterans Affairs to help retired service members address financial issues, find housing, navigate military benefits, and find appropriate medical or mental health treatments.

If you’re interested in working in any of these capacities, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work. Some social workers in this field have military experience as well. The U.S. Department of Defense states the average salary of a military social worker is $126,143.

9. Disability social workers

Disability social workers play a critical role in the empowerment and support of individuals with disabilities, as well as their families. Their work encompasses a variety of tasks aimed at ensuring these individuals can lead fulfilling lives with dignity and independence.

A key aspect of a disability social worker's job is to help clients understand their legal rights. They stay well-informed about disability laws and ensure that their clients are aware of the protections and provisions available to them. This can range from educating them about anti-discrimination laws to informing them about benefits and entitlements. Disability social workers may help an individual with a physical disability apply for a job accommodation, or guide parents in navigating the special education system for their child with a learning disability.

Disability social workers will need to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, though some jobs may require an MSW. Due to the impact of COVID-19, disability social workers are in high-demand throughout communities, as 25% of disabled adults have unmet healthcare needs due to finances. Moreover, with an aging population, the demand is only expected to rise.

10. Occupational social worker

Occupational social workers, also known as corporate social workers, help businesses support their employees' physical and mental health. They might develop wellness programs, or advise management on policies that could improve the overall well-being of employees. For example, they might implement a stress-management workshop or provide individual counseling for an employee dealing with work-related stress.

An occupational social worker may be part-time or full-time depending on the needs of the company. They may be part of an HR team as a Director of Organizational Development or work on a Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DEI) team as a program manager.

Due to the corporate nature of the role, this social work field of practice is quite lucrative. The average salary of an occupational social worker in October 2023 was $89,066. However, many companies prefer you hold an MSW to provide counseling services to employees throughout their organization.

Find Your Ideal Social Work Role

You should now be more familiar with some of the many types of social workers who make a difference in their communities. If you're considering a move into social work, in many cases you'll have to further your education.

Whether your next step is a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, you have options at UMass Global. Not only are our programs CSWE-accredited, our professors are working professionals that also act as mentors to help you figure out how to break into one of the roles above. If you have yet to complete your undergraduate education, visit the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work page. If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree — even in a different field — head over to the Master of Social Work page.


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