Career Paths

Substance Misuse and Addictions

Social workers trained in substance misuse and addiction often work as part of a team of other professionals, especially certified alcohol and drug counselors, physicians, and nurses. Many states require alcohol and drug certification in order to work in specialized addiction treatment settings.

Social workers in this field report the deep satisfaction of watching clients who have been completely hopeless and beaten down by addiction (their own, or someone’s they love), go on to recover their humanity, sense of purpose in life, and ability to make positive choices for themselves.


  • inpatient and outpatient treatment centers
  • methadone maintenance clinics
  • residential treatment
  • community development settings
  • child welfare
  • community mental health centers
  • family service agencies
  • schools


The U.S. population is aging. We live in a country where people over 65 outnumber teenagers. This translates into a tremendous need – and a variety of opportunities – for social work with older persons and their families.

Working with older adults can mean involvement with active, healthy clients as well as those who are ill in settings that range from adult day care centers and nursing homes to hospitals, public agencies, and private corporations. Social workers form an important link between seniors and the services designed to help them.

Often, social workers will have direct contact with elderly people, providing counseling; helping them maintain their independence at home; arranging income assistance, transportation, and medical treatment; organizing recreational activities and support groups; and generally improving their quality of life. Social workers may also work with family members caring for elderly members and may help them obtain services and make plans for future care.

Many who work with seniors find that they profit from the depth and breadth of their experience, one of the more rewarding aspects of this important career.


  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Banks, insurance companies, and investment firms
  • Nursing homes
  • Senior centers
  • Area agencies on aging
  • Senior volunteer programs
  • Senior housing facilities
  • Mental health centers
  • Family service agencies
  • Employee assistance programs

Child Welfare

Child welfare social workers are advocates for America’s most silent minority: our nation’s youths.

The social worker’s job is to help ensure the health and well-being of children, primarily by supporting and strengthening their families. Often, timely services to a family can forestall a crisis.

When Child Protective Services receives a report of a neglected or abused child, social workers investigate, attempting to determine if it is safe for the child to remain in the home. If so, they may provide support services to the family in their home and link parents with community services such as child care, temporary income maintenance, job training, substance abuse treatment, counseling, or parenting classes.

In cases where families can’t or won’t protect their children, social workers may recommend temporary foster care. When longer term arrangements are needed, the social worker will work with lawyers and the courts and may give testimony in the child’s behalf. Child welfare agencies provide services to these children and their families to reunite them if possible. If a child cannot return to the parents, the social worker seeks another permanent home, placing the child with relatives or recommending the child’s release for adoption.

Intervening when children are abused or neglected, when a family is in trouble, or when parents have problems is difficult and challenging, requiring training, skill, and sensitivity. Often a social worker’s intervention makes a critical difference at a key moment in a child’s life.


  • Adoption agencies
  • Child day care
  • Foster care agencies
  • Family preservation agencies
  • Public child welfare organizations
  • Private child welfare organizations

Public Welfare

For more than four decades, public welfare has provided income and support services to society’s most vulnerable people—children, the ill, the elderly, the disabled. Although some of these people will always need services, traditional thinking about how to help is changing as the nation debates welfare reform. How to foster self-sufficiency and move people into the mainstream is today’s challenge, complicated by an increase in social problems and a general decrease in funds.

Social workers are primarily the administrators, managers, and program evaluators of the public welfare system. Some supervise intake workers and case workers who provide direct services. Social work in public welfare entails planning, administering, and financing programs; training and supervising staff; and setting and evaluating standards and criteria for service delivery.

There is no shortage of challenges in public welfare waiting for creative thinking and leadership from social workers.


  • Public welfare agencies
  • Private social service agencies

School Social Work

Every child needs to be free from troubles that interfere with learning. Many school systems employ social workers to help children with emotional, developmental, or educational needs.

Working with teams of other school personnel, social workers help children with physical or learning disabilities or emotional problems or who face child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, or other problems.

Often the social worker’ s job includes interviewing the child and family to determine what if action is called for. Another function is to facilitate communication between parents and school staff. Social workers may also intervene hi problem situations or mobilize parental support for students’ needs.

Social workers may assess student needs, assist in discipline hearings, serve on policymaking committees, or help develop alternative programs. Other functions include facilitating school–community relations and providing a variety of services to students in special education programs.

School social workers may be the first to spot difficulties a child is confronting at home or in the community and the first to intervene. They often provide services or find services in the areas that prevent more serious problems from developing.


  • Elementary and secondary schools
  • Special education placement offices
  • Head start centers
  • Counseling centers
  • Early intervention programs


In courts, rape crisis centers, police departments, and correctional facilities, you’ll find social workers.

In correctional facilities, the focus is on rehabilitation. Social workers may plan and provide drug and alcohol addiction treatment, life skills and basic competency training, and therapy to help offenders function once released into the community.

Social workers can be probation and parole officers, arranging for services after an offender is released, as in Joan’s case, finding a group home residence, remedial classes, job training, addiction treatment, counseling, child care, and transportation. These activities generally help raise a client’s independence and self-esteem.

Social workers may also be involved in restitution programs, or victim assistance services. They may serve the court as expert witnesses or work in partnership with attorneys. In police departments, social workers may help with domestic disputes or provide trauma and critical incident services to enforcement officers.

Social work activities in corrections are diverse, as are the clients, affording the chance to develop and use a broad range of skills. Corrections and justice is a field where a social worker can focus on rehabilitation and the constructive use of authority.


  • Prisons
  • Courts
  • Police departments
  • Victim services programs

Developmental Disabilities

People with developmental disabilities, which can include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and other conditions, may at some time seek out social services. The goal of the social worker is to assist such people in improving their functioning and social adjustment. Usually this is accomplished through teams that include other professionals.

Social workers help parents of children with disabilities understand their legal rights, learn to be advocates for their children, and help them find special services.

Social workers may work with individuals or groups as well as provide counseling for families. The social worker helps find the right services to enable each individual to be as independent as possible.

For the clients of social workers who serve people with disabilities those services can mean the difference between merely surviving and leading a productive and joyful life.


  • Community-based living arrangements
  • State and local agencies
  • Medical facilities
  • Schools

Employment/Occupational Social Work

With the ever-increasing competitiveness of our economy, the quality of the workforce often determines an enterprise’s success or failure. Occupational social workers are a boon to our nation’s businesses, helping workers with problems that affect their job performance and satisfaction. Social workers may help corporations reengineer their structure and methods to improve efficiency, creativity, productivity, and morale. Or social workers in this field may work for a union and might be involved in job counseling or organizing.

A growing practice area for occupational social workers is in employee assistance programs (EAPs). The social worker may own the EAP or be employed by a business or a union, working onsite or off. The breadth and scope of their duties can be enormous – one minute helping an executive cope with the strain of an impending takeover, the next counseling an anorexic young trainee. EAP social workers may lead groups on stress reduction or coping with layoffs. Other situations the social worker may confront include substance abuse, domestic violence, single parenting, and vocational rehabilitation. Many employee assistance programs have extended their role for corporations to the management of mental health benefits.

In the vibrant domain of American work life, social workers provide the necessary human dimension.


  • Corporations
  • Businesses
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Labor unions
  • Organizational development

Health Care

Social workers are needed in hospitals, clinics, and other medical and health care settings to facilitate medical and emotional treatment. These social workers assess a patient’s needs, manage the many services a patient may require for recovery, plan for care after hospitalization, educate patients and their families, and help them cope with the personal and emotional problems related to the illness.

Social workers are vital members of the health care team, working in concert with doctors, nurses, and other health and mental health professionals. They sensitize other health care providers to the social and emotional aspects of illness.

In health settings social workers also conduct research, develop programs, administer social work departments, lead support groups, and coordinate community resources. The health care field offers a variety of employment opportunities in homes, community health centers, outpatient clinics, and public health program, as well as in hospitals.


  • Health maintenance organizations
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Hospice
  • Group homes

Note: This information is from Choices: Careers in Social Work by the National Association of Social Workers.