How to become a social worker

Emma Knowles, Editor
October, 2018

If you're passionate about supporting individuals and families and have excellent interpersonal skills, find out how to enter this rewarding profession and become a social worker

There's more to social work than the stereotype of removing children from their families. Those working in the profession tackle some of society's most complex problems.

As a social worker you can work in a variety of settings such as local authorities, NHS 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.

There's an increasing demand for enthusiastic, forward-thinking graduates to fill vacancies within the profession - Skills for Care's The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England report revealed that an estimated 10% of social worker roles were vacant in 2017/18.


There are a number of routes you can take to become a social worker.

This is a graduate profession, so firstly you'll need a degree at undergraduate or Masters level (if your first degree is unrelated).

You could then opt for a fast-track training programme such as Step Up to Social Work, Frontline or Think Ahead.

To find out more about the different entry routes and social work bursaries see social work courses.

Skills for social workers

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 establishing 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 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 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.
  • 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.

Work experience

You're unlikely to get onto a Masters course, fast-track programme or secure a job without work experience. The best way to learn about the profession and gain an insight into whether this type of work is for you is through volunteering.

Taking on a voluntary position demonstrates your commitment to social work and is an excellent way to build useful contacts and gain experience in dealing with individuals, groups and families. 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.

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, look to:

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.

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 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.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

Social work apprenticeships

A group of local authorities in England, supported by Skills for Care, have put forward plans to the government for the first integrated social work degree apprenticeship.

As of autumn 2018 the apprenticeship is still under consideration by the government. Details are yet to be confirmed, but the scheme won't have any formal entry criteria, is expected to last 36 months and will see trainees undergo a mixture of on-the-job training and university study, with a minimum of 20% of an apprentice's paid working hours spent in off-the-job training. Apprentices will leave the course with a degree and professional social worker status.

Degree apprentices receive at least the National Minimum Wage, currently £3.70 (rising to £3.90 in April 2019), although employers have the freedom to pay considerably more.

Visit Skills for Care - Thinking of doing an apprenticeship? for updates, and find out more about apprenticeships.

Finding a job

In September 2018 there were 97,829 social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in England. Once you've gained the right combination of qualifications and experience you could join them.

Fast-track training schemes such as Step Up to Social Work, Frontline and Think Ahead often lead directly into full-time employment as do apprenticeships, 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 Personnel, Caritas 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