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A career in social work?

Brianne Turk

Careers Commentator
Ever thought about a career in social work?

If you’re a passionate and empathetic person, and you aspire to support others and effect social change, social work could be the career for you.

Social workers work alongside individuals, families, groups and communities to assist them to maximise their potential and live fulfilling lives. They engage with and mobilise people to address challenges and improve their overall well-being. This work is carried out through a process of empowerment and collaboration, whereby workers see people as having the capacity to take control of their own lives, while at the same time identifying and addressing the hurdles they face on both a personal and systemic level.

Let’s break it down.    

Typically people meet with a social worker when they’re facing a personal challenge they haven’t yet been able to overcome on their own. This could be due to financial hardship, a lack of information, not being connected to appropriate services, language barriers, mental-health issues, overwhelming life events, personal coping strategies, disability and so forth. Social workers empower people by giving them a voice, assisting  their problem-solving, identifying and standing up against barriers that hinder success, providing information and links to services, and advocating for human rights and social justice on their behalf.  

Importantly, social workers acknowledge the structural and systemic inequalities that disadvantage certain groups of people, and fight for social change in these areas.

Who will I work with and how?

Social work is extremely broad area of expertise, encompassing a wide variety of tasks with lots of different kinds of people.

The work can be described at three levels: micro (working with individuals/families), mezzo (working with small to medium groups such as neighbourhoods, schools and support groups), or macro (working with large-scale policy change, community lobbying etc).

You might find yourself:

  • Working in a one-on-one capacity offering direct counselling and providing information and referrals
  • Working with families to ensure they have access to financial & social support services and jointly formulating plans to manage their lives
  • Creating and/or facilitating groups where individuals share a common need, including parental support groups, drug & alcohol rehabilitation groups, educational forums, and recreation services for young people
  • Working with communities to raise awareness or gain feedback on an issue, and to build its capacity to be self-sustaining
  • Writing policy and/or advocating for policy changes on behalf of organisations, clients or the government.

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What principles is social work based on?

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) is the national representative body of social workers in Australia who set the industry benchmark with their Code of Ethics and Practice Standards. These documents govern the conduct of social workers and provide advice for ethical and accountable practice. Taken directly from the AASW Code of Ethics 2010, there are three core values that social work is based on:

  • Respect for persons - Every human being is important and unique. Every person has the right to self-determination, self-fulfilment and wellbeing. Social work practice promotes justice and personal responsibility with consideration to the rights of those around them.
  • Social justice - Social work practice should promote fairness and social justice in any society, taking special considerations for those marginalised. It also encourages the advocating of societal change eliminating oppression towards those who are vulnerable.
  • Professional integrity - The social work profession values honesty, transparency, reliability, empathy, reflective self-awareness, discernment, competence and commitment. This value is concerned with professional conduct, acting with dignity and commitment to lifelong development as a professional.


To practice social work, you must have completed a social work degree including field placements.  

The AASW reviews and accredits all social work degrees, to ensure graduates are trained to meet the professional standards of the industry. After completion of one of these degrees, membership with the AASW shows workplaces and clients that you are a legitimate, qualified social worker.

Both the Bachelor and Masters of Social Work are accredited, overarching degrees that qualify you to work with people of any age, seeking support for a myriad of reasons. These courses also allow you to cross between different service areas within social work throughout your career. For example, you might start out as a practicing social worker at a primary school, before moving into crisis support in the housing and homelessness sector, and finish up supporting families affected by disability.   

You’ll be expected to undertake further training in your organisation’s area of expertise, when you secure employment.

There are also positions in the human services sector that might be open to social workers but don’t necessarily need to be filled by social workers. Such titles include youth worker, cultural development officer and housing support worker, to name a few. For these types of roles, some people choose to study a certificate or diploma that focuses on one particular area of specialty, rather than the broader social work degree. Courses include:

  • Certificate IV in Disability
  • Certificate IV in Youth Work
  • Certificate IV in Alcohol and Other Drugs
  • Diploma of Community Services
  • Graduate certificate in Loss, Grief & Trauma Counselling

These studies are great for people who know exactly which area they’d like to work in, or for those who already have other relevant courses under their belt. They might also be suitable for people looking for shorter study options. On the downside, they make it

more difficult to move across to other areas of specialty down the track (unless you want to take up further study), and typically bring a lower pay grade than a social work degree.

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Wage, stats & career progression

According to payscale.com in 2017, an entry-level social worker in Australia earns on average $55,542 per year, rising to $65,244 with 5 -10 years experience. Career progression is linear, with increasing responsibility offered all the way up to management positions. Social workers can be found in the public, private and third sectors, and may work for themselves.

The field is made up mostly of women (men, get involved!) and the dropout rate is well above average. This is likely linked to the emotional impact social work can have on its workers. If you’re truly considering this line of work, it’s important that you read our article Self care & compassion fatigue in graduate social workers. For longevity in the profession, it is vital to put care practices into place.

Most graduates begin their social work career in service delivery roles working directly with clients. This provides hands-on experience in a variety of scenarios where you can put a range of theories and interventions into practice.

Career pathways from here include specialising in direct practice with a certain population or issue (e.g. specialising in Indigenous communities or family mediation), facilitating groups, formulating and coordinating programs, budgeting and reporting on targets, supervising and managing staff, undertaking research assignments, writing policy, advocating for change, teaching at institutions and taking up advisory/board positions. Of course, all of these exist within a certain segment of social work services, such as domestic violence, child protection or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

There are so many different social work roles on offer that we’d never be able to name them all. But we’ve certainly created a comprehensive list! To check it out and get further info on social work jobs, head here.