There are many jobs that a social worker can perform because the field is so diverse. Various certifications and education opportunities exist for social workers. Most have at minimum a bachelor's degree, and many in this field have master's degrees in social work and have gone through additional training to become licensed. After licensing, social workers are called licensed clinical social workers, can command a higher salary, and may work not only in a variety of settings like hospitals, schools, social welfare organizations, but are also licensed as therapists, where they may perform one-on-one counseling with a variety of clients. Since this last job is relatively well-defined, this explanation will focus on non-therapy related work settings for the social worker.
Some social workers are employed to help people navigate the welfare system not only give advice, but also help people find resources to improve their lives. The adept worker has access to information about job training programs, daycare opportunities, free job or personal counseling services, drug and alcohol cessation programs, reduced price or low income housing, and programs that may help augment someone's food supply. These workers often have a bachelor's degree in social work, and tend to work as a motivating force to help people become emotionally and financially stable so they can get off welfare quickly.
In other settings a social worker might work for departments that protect children, either through schools or through Child Protective Services departments. They may be required to observe children in their home setting, make recommendations for removal of children from dangerous or abusive homes, find foster care placement for children removed from their homes, or work toward reunifying families. They may give testimony in court as to dangerous or unsafe conditions that would allow for the removal of children, or they may give testimony that a parent who has lost his or her children due to abuse or neglect has now made sufficient progress to be reunified with a child.
A social worker is also a valuable part of the healthcare team, when hospital social workers work directly with families or with patients to help them meet certain needs. They may offer brief, as-needed counseling, but they also have access to information on resources that might prove helpful to families or patients. For instance, if a child is born with severe and disabling illness, a social worker can find temporary housing so parents can stay with the child, help the parents apply for special insurance or social security payments to care for the child, and work with the parents to make sure they understand the nature of care required when the child comes home. They take some of the burden off the parents in a situation like this, so parents can focus on care of their child. Similarly, social workers who work with the elderly in hospital settings may counsel patients or their children on resources available for long-term care as needed.
Often, at least one social worker is employed in a school district, where he or she may counsel children, assess the needs of impoverished families, help bridge the gap between non-native speakers of English who are parents and the school system, or participate and make suggestions regarding individualized education plans (IEPs) for children with disabilities. He or she also may preliminarily investigate allegations of parental abuse. Alternately, the worker may investigate any claims of teacher or administrative abuse of children.
Social workers can also be a valuable part of creating social policy and laws. They participate in think tanks to help solve societal problems, like issues with the homeless, poverty, child abuse, or sexual abuse. They can help create or lobby for new laws, advise government on ways to better the lives of all people, and research trends in society that are potentially dangerous to the society at large.
The plethora of jobs available for the social worker is truly astounding. It is important to understand that this work can be very demanding and emotionally challenging, however. Many social workers complain of caseloads that are impossible to handle appropriately, lack of resources for people in need of them, and fairly low play. This is especially true for those employed by government agencies like Child Protective Services or welfare programs, where need for these valuable helpers often exceeds funding.