Social work is certainly not seen as a glamorous career.

Even Mariah Carey was not allowed a single swipe of eye shadow when she portrayed the empathetic, albeit dowdy, welfare caseworker in the award-winning film, Precious.

Maybe it has to do with the very nature of social workers, themselves: dedicated champions of society's most vulnerable who place caring and compassion about glitz and glitter.

While it seems as if the entire world wants to be the next American Idol or Voice, in reality, the need – and demand – for social workers far outweighs that for rock stars.

And that's good news if you're working on an online masters in social work.

Social work: one of fastest-growing careers in the United States

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, social work is one of the fastest-growing careers in the United States.

While the average projected growth rate for all occupations between 2010 and 2020 is 14 percent, the projected employment change for social work is 25 percent.

  • Employment of healthcare social workers is expected to grow by 34 percent.

  • The need for mental health substance abuse social workers is expected to grow by 31 percent.

  • Child, family and school social workers are expected to grow by 20 percent.

Hundreds of areas of expertise for social workers

What's your image of a social worker?

You probably picture a social worker as someone who spends a lot of time away from the office, visiting clients in schools, homes, prisons, and hospitals. Providing therapy to people with addictions. Counseling patients with mental health or medical diagnoses. Assisting the elderly as they transition back home after an illness. Helping families cope with a terminal illness.

In reality, there are hundreds of areas of expertise in which social workers practice in a wide variety of fields. Here are a few that you might not have thought about before.

Growing fields of practice

Military Social Work: With increasing numbers of service members returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health issues, the need for military social workers is growing. Social workers who understand military culture and how to treat military personnel are needed to work with veterans, retirees, spouses, and other military dependents, as well as active military service members.

Settings for military social workers may include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has become the largest employer of master's-level social workers in the nation, the Department of Defense, or any number of direct practice and advocacy organizations.

Animal Assisted Interaction (AAI): The emotional bond between humans and animals is a powerful one and positive interactions can significantly affect one's physiological and emotional well-being. That's why more social workers are using therapy and service animals – primarily dogs, but cats, guinea pigs, horses, and other animals as well – in their work.

AAI includes both animal assisted activities (such as a therapy dog team visiting seniors in a nursing home to bring comfort and brighten their days) and animal assisted therapy (where animals are integrated in the actual therapeutic process, such as using an animal as part of a child's physical therapy treatment plan).

Veterinary Social Work: AAI is actually a subset of the broader and emerging field of veterinary social work. Veterinarians, for example, deal with death rates five times higher than doctors who care for humans. Workers in animal shelters and rescue groups may suffer from the grief and stress of "compassion fatigue" as a result of the countless numbers of unwanted animals. Social workers can help care for these types of workers who care for animals, as well as provide counseling services for people, in general, experiencing grief over the death of an animal companion.

Forensic Social Work: Forensic social work is the application of social work to issues of law, legal systems, and litigation, both criminal and civil. Career opportunities can be found in law offices, legislative offices, public defenders' offices, and legal aid agencies. Forensic social workers may become involved with child custody issues involving divorce, separation, or termination of parental rights or cases involving child or spouse abuse. They may diagnose and treat criminal or juvenile justice populations, or law enforcement and other criminal justice personnel.

Gerontology Social Work: The baby boom generation is aging. According to the Council on Social Work Education, by 2020, 16 percent of adults will be age 65 compared to 13 percent today. Approximately 60,000-70,000 social workers will be needed to work with older adults, yet less than 10 percent of that number is now available.

Experts foresee excellent job prospects for gerontologic social workers eager to work with older adults who may not fit the traditional image of fragile elders in nursing homes. Social workers will be needed to serve in any number of diverse roles, from supervisors in grandparent caregiver support programs and community centers to policy analysts in state legislatures.

Earning a social work degree offers numerous ways to help under-served populations in society, to combine compassion and caring with commitment and action. And while it's true, social work may not be the most glamorous of professions, it can provide something far more valuable – the satisfaction that comes from helping others.

What would you like to do with a social work degree?


March as been designated by the National Association of Social Workers as National Social Work Month. For more information about National Social Work Month 2013 or the social work profession, visit


Image Credit: uggboy on Flickr/Creative Commons

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