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Counselor, Activist, Advocate: What is a Social Worker, Exactly?

What is a Social Worker

There seems to be a wide range of positions that fall under the umbrella of social worker. You might see them as counselors for traumatized children, as activists in the legal system, as therapists working with the homeless or countless other circumstances. They may be employed in an office, hospital, school, mental health clinic or another setting.

So what is a social worker, exactly?

“Social workers are professionals dedicated to empowering the disenfranchised and advocating for the vulnerable,” says Sharon Martin, social worker and founder of If you think of how broad those terms are, how many people might be considered vulnerable at a given time, you’ll have a good idea of how wide the scope of social work really is.

The specifics of daily duties, work environments and earning potential for social workers all depend on how you decide to focus your efforts. But we’re here to help give you a better idea of what the career entails so you can decide if it’s an opportunity that suits you.

What do social workers do?

The short answer is that they help people. On top of rehabilitating and assisting individuals, social workers also tend to have an eye toward repairing society as a whole.

“Social workers use human agency to restore individuals and communities back to a sense of normalcy,” says Chad Dion Lassiter, social worker and race-relations expert. Social workers should be agents of positive change in individuals, families and entire communities, adds Martin. That fact is evident in every branch of social work.

Now that you have a better idea of what social workers do at a comprehensive level, you’re likely curious what that looks like on a daily basis. Here are some examples of daily duties of a social worker, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL):

  • Counseling clients in individual or group settings to help them overcome personal struggles.
  • Monitoring and evaluating client progress with respect to treatment goals.
  • Collaborating with other members of the care team to plan or coordinate treatment.
  • Aiding family members to assist them in understanding and supporting the client’s treatment plan.

Where do social workers fit in the criminal justice system?

As mentioned above, social workers are employed in a variety of work environments. One common option for is to work with criminal offenders during or after incarceration.

“Our jail and prison systems are disproportionally full of individuals with mental illness and addiction, minorities, economically disadvantaged and those who live in unsafe and unstable communities,” Martin says. Social workers can provide counseling around common issues inmates combat, such as anger, aggression, chemical dependency, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideations.

Lassiter also emphasizes this point of criminal justice, saying that social workers also play a critical role in counteracting racist and dehumanizing tendencies in the prison system.

This twofold approach of recognizing both individual lives and systemic patterns to rehabilitation means that many social workers spend time in counseling and therapy as well as lobbying for laws, creating programs and raising money, according to Martin. Both Martin and Lassiter believe that social workers are beneficial and necessary in every part of society as their efforts are aimed at rehabilitation, education and overall change wherever needed.

Why become a social worker?

“There are jobs in social work to fit almost anyone's interest,” says Maryellen Mullin, licensed marriage and family therapist. There are so many ways to make beneficial changes from a systematic scale down to the more personal end of the spectrum. “The exciting part about social work is that you are able to see how a small change can positively ripple through a system.”

"There are jobs in social work to fit almost anyone's interest."

Martin points out that social work is also an excellent preparatory field for many other branches of industry—especially careers involving psychology and mental health. She also emphasizes how versatile the field of social work is, involving so many populations and locations with so many different needs.

There is work for every type of interest. And no matter where you choose to focus your work, you know that you are exerting your efforts to literally make a difference in your community. The job will always mean something.

“It provides an opportunity for the social worker to find joy in transcending self to serve others,” Lassiter says. He finds it rewarding to serve as a vehicle to alleviate the suffering of others.

What skills & education do you need to become a social worker?

It takes a compassionate person with a wide range of skills to take on the responsibilities of a social worker. We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 215,000 social work job postings from the past year.* The data helped us identify the top 10 skills employers are seeking in social work candidates.

Here’s what we found:

  • Case management
  • Treatment planning
  • Mental health
  • Social services
  • Patient care
  • Crisis intervention
  • Psychology
  • Rehabilitation
  • Behavioral health
  • Data entry

But don’t let this list intimidate you, because these are precisely the types of skills and experience a formal education will help you acquire. And according to our analysis, earning a degree in this field will increase your hiring potential significantly.

In fact, the data shows that nearly 75 percent of employers are seeking social work candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree.* There are also many career advancement opportunities available for those who choose to pursue graduate or doctorate degrees.

Ready to make a difference?

So what is a social worker? Now you know there isn’t exactly a precise answer. But you should have a better understanding of the types of careers in the field and the lasting impact these professionals make on a daily basis.

If you like the idea of pursuing a rewarding career such as this, learn more about the next steps in our article: I Want to Become a Social Worker, Now What?


Rasmussen College does not offer an educational program that prepares students to become licensed or to be employed as a social worker. Please see for a list of the programs we offer.
* (analysis of 215,238 social work job postings, Feb. 1, 2015 – Jan. 31, 2016)

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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