Social work is both a challenging and rewarding profession and due to the overstretched nature of social services there's a huge demand for graduates. Find out more about qualification routes and the skills you'll need to succeed

Social work is a practice-based profession that is all about enhancing the wellbeing of individuals and families by meeting and improving their basic needs. As a social worker you'll work in a variety of settings such as local authorities, NHS (National Health Service) trusts or the voluntary and private sectors with a diverse client base including children, adults, the elderly, families and those with disabilities, addictions, learning difficulties and mental health issues.

What social work qualifications do I need?

Social work is a graduate profession, so you need to be educated to at least degree level in order to qualify.

There are a number of routes you can take to become a social worker. The most obvious is to study for an undergraduate social work degree. The majority of institutions provide Bachelors courses in the subject, so do your research to find out which is the right one for you.

If your first degree was in an unrelated subject, your next option is to consider a Masters in social work (MSW). Search postgraduate social work courses.

If you'd prefer a more hands-on approach there are a number of fast-track training programmes on offer.

To be eligible for the government's Step Up to Social Work programme you'll need a 2:1 or a 2:2 and a Masters in any discipline except social work.

On the two-year Frontline programme you'll earn a postgraduate diploma and a Masters degree.

To register for the Think Ahead programme you'll need a 2:1 or higher in any subject other than social work.

For a more comprehensive guide to social work qualifications and social work bursaries, see social work courses.

Should I do a social work apprenticeship?

It's possible to qualify as a social worker through a social work degree apprenticeship. To find out more, see social care apprenticeships.

Do I need to register as a social worker?

Yes, and the reason for this is to ensure that all social workers are fully qualified and operate to the highest standards.

To secure a job as a social worker you must be registered with one of the four UK regulators:

The one you need to register with will depend on where you plan to live and work. To register you'll need to hold a social work degree - either Bachelors or Masters.

Registered social workers need to re-register every two or three years. The process of re-registration requires you to complete ongoing training and learning. The four regulators have different requirements and procedures, so make sure you're aware of what's expected of you.

Social Work England requires social workers to maintain a record of their CPD activities; they also carry out random audits to ensure that those registered are carrying out the necessary training.

What skills do I need to succeed in social work?

To become a successful social worker you'll need to be skilled in the following areas:

  • Active listening - entails listening, paying attention to and remembering what others tell you and demonstrating this through appropriate body language and responses. It's not only essential to collecting client information but also to establish trust.
  • Boundary setting - the nature of the work means it's easy to get emotionally invested in cases. Setting boundaries ensures that professional lines aren't crossed and it keeps you focused on the end goal.
  • Critical and creative thinking - being able to think on your feet enables you to make important decisions and solve complex problems based on your knowledge, understanding and analysis of a case.
  • Communication - both written and verbal. Social workers need to communicate with a variety of people in a number of different ways, be this talking to clients face-to-face or over the phone, presenting cases to colleagues or making written referrals. All communication must be clear and articulate in order to be understood.
  • Interpersonal skills - social work is all about building relationships and an element of trust with clients, so being able to work with people from all backgrounds is crucial.
  • IT - you'll need to keep up-to-date, accurate records of all cases and complete a substantial amount of paperwork, so proficiency with computers is essential.
  • Organisation - social workers have to juggle a heavy caseload and liaise with other agencies on a daily basis, so organisational skills are vital. Organisational ability also enables social workers to cope under pressure and prioritise their cases accordingly.
  • Recall - a heavy caseload also requires a good memory as you'll be expected to know the details of each case without getting them mixed up.
  • Resilience - the work is emotionally challenging and you'll likely have to deal with individuals and families in crisis on a regular basis. Resilience and the ability to look after your own emotional needs are imperative to succeeding in the job.

Where can I find relevant work experience?

You're unlikely to get onto a Masters course, fast-track programme or secure a job without significant work experience.

Organising a period of work shadowing alongside a qualified social worker may be difficult due to heavy caseloads and the sensitive and confidential nature of their work. However, you could try speculatively contacting your local authority social services department to explain your situation and enquire about opportunities. If you know a professional social worker now's the time to take advantage of your contacts. Any work experience within a social work department will be valuable, as it'll give you an insight into this challenging work.

One of the best ways to gain experience of working with children, families and vulnerable groups is through volunteering.

Taking on a voluntary position demonstrates your commitment to social work and is an excellent way to build useful contacts. There are a variety of opportunities on offer - for example, if you'd like to work with children you could volunteer in schools, summer camps, youth clubs and local sports teams. Discover 10 opportunities to volunteer with children.  

Volunteering with victim support organisations, homeless shelters and mental health charities such as Mind provides valuable experience for those hoping to work with vulnerable groups. For volunteering positions, see:

To develop your communication and active listening skills you could volunteer as a phone line counsellor for charities such as ChildLine, Nightline or the Samaritans. You could also get involved in more wide-ranging community projects at advice centres, community centres and churches.

Paid work is also relevant, especially if it's in a caring capacity and can help to develop your leadership and management skills. Jobs in day care centres, schools and care homes will be particularly useful.

The Princes Trust offers 70-day student social work placements to those undertaking a social work degree at undergraduate or Masters level. The placements give students first-hand experience of supporting those aged between 16 and 25 with issues relating to education, emotional wellbeing, abuse, housing or finances.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

Where should I look for social work jobs?

Once you've gained the right combination of qualifications and experience, you'll be ready to look for social work jobs.

Fast-track training schemes and apprenticeships often lead directly into full-time employment, but if you didn't qualify through these routes, here's how to find social worker vacancies:

  • Search online - check local authority and council websites, NHS Jobs for careers in NHS trusts and the job pages of charitable organisations you're interested in working for.
  • Use your contacts - make use of social media channels such as LinkedIn and Twitter and your university alumni network to let contacts know that you're looking for a job in social work.
  • Join professional bodies - gaining membership of The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) opens up a variety of opportunities. You can search for vacancies and attend conferences and networking events.
  • Sign up to an agency - social work agencies such as Liquid PersonnelSanctuary PersonnelCaritas and Seven Resourcing are recruitment agencies that specialise in social work roles. Gaining work through an agency means you'll likely work on short-term contracts, providing experience in a range of settings.

Once you've secured that all-important job interview, see social work interview questions to find out how to impress.

Find out more

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