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

Every day social workers support millions of people to make positive changes in their lives. In the role you'll 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.

Local authorities are struggling to recruit full-time social workers and due to the overstretched nature of Children's Services there's an increasing demand for enthusiastic, forward-thinking graduates to fill vacancies.

According to government statistics there were 29,470 full-time children and family social workers as of September 2018. The number of vacancies stood at 5,810.

Gain social work qualifications

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

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

If you're 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 graduates of any discipline.

To be eligible for the governments 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.

Do a social work apprenticeship

A relatively new development, it's now possible to qualify through a social work degree apprenticeship.

Taking approximately 36 months, on completion apprentices gain an Honours degree in Social Work, enabling them to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as a qualified social worker. Be aware that from 2 December 2019 Social Work England will take over from the HCPC as the new regulator for social workers.

Apprentices on the scheme earn while they learn as they 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. The beauty of degree apprenticeships is that you can qualify into a graduate role without having to pay tuition fees or being burdened by student debt.

Degree apprentices receive at least the National Minimum Wage, currently £3.90 although employers have the freedom to pay considerably more.

Learn more about apprenticeships.

Develop essential social work skills

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.

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 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.

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 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. 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, 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.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

Look for vacancies

In September 2019 there were 96,618 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 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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