If you have a desire to help people, then there is no career more appropriate to you than that of a social worker. It is a challenging role and one that is fuelled by a vocation to work with those who have not been given a fair chance. Here we explore how to become a social worker, offering advice on the desired qualities you will need, and the qualifications required.
The role of a social worker
Mostly, as a social worker, you aim to improve the quality of life of individuals who face challenges. You may be responsible for accessing other services, teaching essential life skills or intervening in emergencies. Although a large proportion of this work is people-centred, some of the work is administrative. High levels of project management and communication skill are necessary to coordinate the many strands of an individual’s story, drawing together potential solutions in one package.
There are lots of different kinds of social worker. The type of social worker you become will change the circumstances and responsibilities of your role. You may work with families or schools, intervening on behalf of a child. You may be a public health social worker, working with those with chronic or life-threatening conditions. Finally, you may be an addition and mental health social worker, helping those challenged by life to attain the capacity to live independently.
The day to day work of a social worker
Where you work daily will depend on the type of social worker you choose to become. You may work in a hospital, a clinic, a school, the Department of Health, military bases or even prisons. Wherever you are based, you are likely to spend a proportion of your time in 1-to-1 work or with groups. You will also be gathering, collating or actioning information.
In truth, the role of the social worker is to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of the individuals in their care. Sometimes you will think you are doing a day of paperwork and, instead, you will find yourself out in the community talking to someone about the problems they face. Each day you will identify people who need help, speak to different agencies about the help on offer and then advocate for the action that you feel best supports your service user.
The working hours of a social worker can be unsocial. You may need to work at weekends, evenings and on holidays. The standard working week is between 35 and 40 hours – but most social workers need help to maintain a work/life balance to ensure continued emotional resilience. Social work is one of those professions where discretionary effort is taken for granted by professionals, if not by the employers.
The skills of a social worker
As you can imagine, a lot of the skills of a social worker are best learned through experience. There are communication skills and administration duties that can be taught. Knowledge of the law and procedures can be taught. However, empathy and the ability to perceive subtle social cues come from working closely with people every day. You will be skilled at reading body language, tone of voice, you will be able to listen actively – and then find a way to respond that de-escalates a situation and keeps everyone calm.
You will ultimately be a problem-solver. You will be presented with complex cases that need a path mapped towards something better and more tolerable. Therefore, you will need to be quick to critically evaluate a situation and see through the details of the essential needs and requirements.
Your social worker qualifications
You will need to be a graduate to work in social work. It would be best if you had an honours degree and then a post-graduate degree in social work, although a degree in social work to a level of 2:1 is more desirable. Your qualification needs to be approved by the regulators, such as the HCPC in England, and you will have to register with them to be a social worker.
If you have a degree but not in social work, it is also possible to undertake a Step up to Social Work programme. This is a 14-month course that offers intensive training.
To become a social worker, you could:
- study for a BA (Hons) in Social Work or complete another degree and then convert this to a social work qualification with a post-graduate course
- seek practical experience while training to be a social worker to gain some of the skills that cannot be learnt without being in that situation
- consider post-graduate study, even if you complete a BA (Hons) in Social Work. This will help with career progression into more specialist areas of social work
- register with the regulatory body for social work in your country such as the HCPC
- seek employment