What is Social Work?
Social workers work in a variety of settings, such as the traditional human service agencies serving children and families and in hospitals, but they can also be found in nontraditional arenas such as private businesses, politics and classrooms. In many settings, it is the social workers who are the first point of contact for a client, and it is their job to assess a client's needs and figure out what resources are available. In some positions, social workers provide individual and group counseling, staff supervision, case-management services and overall program guidance. In nontraditional settings such as private business, social workers work in employee assistance programs (EAPs), which help employees deal with stress, substance use, time management and other issues that can affect work productivity. Still others decide that they would rather work for themselves and start private practices offering counseling and therapy to individuals, groups and families as well as private case consultation and supervision to other social workers.
The skills and experience gained from direct practice with individuals is sometimes transferred to a macro-level practice where one can influence the social policies that affect the most vulnerable in a community. Some become advisors to politicians; others conduct research on specific populations/issues, such as HIV. This research informs social policy, influences health care options and develops standard practices, often called best practices, which become the basis for service delivery to these populations.
Community-organizing social workers partner with community members--neighbors, local politicians and businesses--to open or save a community youth center, ask for more police presence in high crime areas or provide education and support for health care options and communicable diseases. These social workers often work within communities made up of the extremely poor, illegal immigrants and low-skilled workers to help improve their living, working and educational conditions.
Perhaps the newest area for social workers is trauma and disaster. Since the events of September 11th and through to Hurricane Katrina, social workers have been in the forefront as first responders because of their training in crisis intervention and ability to quickly analyze and evaluate the needs of those affected. Organizations such as the American Red Cross rely heavily on trained social workers to provide disaster mental health counseling; over 40 percent of their volunteers are professional social workers. Social workers provide direct services to victims, such as grief counseling, and bring together appropriate service providers and community resources to assist people in restoring their lives. The assessment skills social workers have are essential to providing these crisis-based services with compassion and efficiency.
Social work is a vast and dynamic field that offers boundless opportunities to grow and learn based on the world around you as well as the turns your own life takes. Depending on what area of social work you choose and with whom you decide to work with, your success will depend on your skills, both learned and innate. But your opportunities will only be limited by your own imagination. If you are looking for a career that is interesting, ever-changing and diverse, and having an abundance of options, social work may be for you. Good luck!