The number one social-work related Google Search is “Social Work Jobs”. The second most popular is “Social Work Salary”. I’ve been working in the social services field since 2010, in the Seattle area. I’ve had multiple social work jobs and know a thing or two about social work salaries. Let me tell you- they’re not what you think.
If you’re considering a career in social work, I applaud you. Some people do really well in social work- it suits them, and they live very fulfilled lives. However, they seem to be the exception and not the rule. If you go into social work, expect to work long hours. Expect to be frustrated in your attempts to help people: by bureaucracy, rules, and sometimes by your own supervisors and coworkers. Expect to be unappreciated by those you work with and by the community at large.
Despite what newspapers might portray, social workers on the ground floor of services actually have very little control over what they are able to do for their clients. I learned this lesson while working for the state doing child welfare. Many or most of my coworkers genuinely cared for their clients, wanted the best for them, and were willing to do whatever they could to support their health and growth. However, state workers operate within a strict set of formulas. If your client has problem X, you offer solution Y. If you run into situation A, you respond with action B. This type of system helps mitigate the damage of bad social workers, but removes the positive power of good social workers.
Everyone who looks into social worker knows that it’s like teaching- you don’t do it for the salary. I graduated in 2010 with my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, and I worked as a discharge planner at a nursing home. My starting pay was $18/hour. Not bad for a starting social worker! After a year and a half at that job, I realized that there would be no upward movement unless I got my Master’s in Social Work, so quit my job and enrolled in school. I graduated with my Master’s degree in 2014 and started a job with the state making a salary that was only a few more dollars an hour. That’s pretty much where social workers live- enough to survive, but not enough to thrive. Worth it if social work is your calling, not worth it if you’re not crazy about the path.
There’s a small subsection of social workers who go into the field in some sort of misguided attempt to address their own personal issues. You’ll find these people in every work environment, not crazy enough to get noticed by management, but just strange enough to make things awkward and uncomfortable. If you’re thinking about social work as a career path, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about your motives. Social work will not cure your family issues. Go see a therapist- don’t try to become one.
Where Am I Now?
Here’s the hopeful part of this article: I love my current job. Love it. I work for a tribe that cares about its members and trusts its employees. My salary’s more than my husband’s, who’s an ICU nurse. I have a flexible schedule, a boss who appreciates me, and enough time off to take care of myself. When I work with a family, I get to use my own clinical judgment to help them, rather than following an arbitrary set of rules. It’s wonderful. However, I spent 5 years working in misery to get to where I am. And the vast majority of my colleagues remain working in high-bureaucracy, low-pay situations.
It may seem like I’m trying to discourage people from choosing social worker as a career path, but I’m not. I believe that social workers have unique and valuable skills and possess an important role in society. However- I see so many social workers burning out early on in their career. I think it’s because they went to school with different expectations than what they found when they graduated. If you think social work is your calling, by all means, go for it. Just go in with eyes wide open.