Learn about North Carolina Licensure

Industries and Emerging Needs in Social Work

Written by Jack Levinson

social worker walking with client

When you think of a social worker, you might have a particular image in your head – perhaps of a therapist meeting one-on-one with a patient, or of an intake administrator working at a community center. While some social workers’ day to day jobs may look like this, these are by no means the only environments where social workers do their jobs.

Social workers are employed by organizations across industries, providing specialized services to individuals and families with a wide range of needs.

Indeed, one of the exciting things about entering the social work profession is the large variety of opportunities there are to provide support to others. These options allow social workers to find the cause and setting that will engage their interests and harness their talents, making for a career that is sustainable in the long term.

Industries of all types employ social workers, from hospitals and schools to government organizations to nonprofits. Social workers employed by these organizations can perform a variety of roles, from providing counseling services to helping people navigate complex bureaucratic procedures to secure social support. Though social work students are encouraged to be open minded as they begin their educational journey, it may be clarifying to you to think about what type of employment setting would most appeal to you as a place to launch your career.

The Role of Social Workers in Industrial Settings

Social workers are instrumental to many industries, providing support to individuals and families and helping to ensure that organizations can be effective and beneficial for all. Working in collaboration with their colleagues, their work strengthens institutions and expands access to those most in need. The role of social work in industry can vary dramatically depending on where you are employed; there is no singular role that social workers are expected to play from one workplace to the next.

Some of the top employers of social workers include the following:

As you can see, these options run the gamut of work environments and communities whose needs are met.

This variety of employers and roles goes to show how vastly different social workers’ jobs can look, and how important it is to find the branch of social work that fits your interests and goals.

As a prospective social worker, now is a good moment for you to consider which of these settings would appeal to you as a workplace, as this can help you choose where you get your field work exposure.

helping older client over coffee

Career Spotlight: What Do Corporate Social Workers Do?

Most people assume that social workers exclusively are employed by social service organizations, working chiefly with economically and politically disadvantaged communities. While this is true for many social workers, there are also numerous employment opportunities in the private sector where you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

Many corporations employ social workers to support their employees, seeing it as an investment in a company’s office culture and in overall employee retention. In these contexts, social workers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), which typically feature counseling sessions and other supportive services to help workers who are dealing with job-related difficulties. This can involve crisis mediation and conflict resolution. In other words, it’s not a job to be taken lightly.

Social workers in corporate settings also facilitate educational workshops that provide information and training to help foster a peaceful, inclusive, and supportive work environment. These can include workshops on workshops, methods for navigating interpersonal conflict, D.E.I. initiatives, and more. In this way, social workers play a significant role in shaping and refining company culture.

Though they are assisting different populations from other social workers, corporate social work professionals can act as key liaisons and advocates for employees, creating change when it is needed and providing an attentive ear where there otherwise wouldn’t be one.

Current Challenges and Emerging Trends in Social Work

One of the most exciting aspects of the social work profession is that the field is continuously evolving. All branches of social work are united in a shared goal of supporting those who need it most.

Recent innovations in the social work field have been in service to deepening the efficacy of social work programs and expanding their reach to more individuals and families in need.

Below are a few of the biggest emerging issues in the social work field, as well as current social work industry trends and recent examples of disruptive innovation in social work.

video call


The Rise of Technology in the Social Work Field

One of the most notable emerging trends in social work is the embrace of teletherapy and other digital platforms that turn what were previously in-person services into options that can be accessed remotely. Though once a topic of debate among social work professionals, in recent years there has been a more widespread acceptance of virtual services.

Why is this? For one thing, it’s undeniable that virtual conferencing technology extends the reach of social services greatly, meaning more people in need have access to quality care and support. This was made especially clear during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the majority of social services were pushed to online platforms out of necessity. The success of these virtual programs and the ease with which participants made use of them was enough to change the minds of many who had previously been skeptical of this new format.

As virtual technology becomes more deeply embedded into the social work profession, social workers are thinking carefully about the ways it can transform the field – and the ways that it shouldn’t. Some social services, like certain kinds of counseling, depend upon in-person visits or are even intended to facilitate social interactions with others. These are likely to be preserved as-is in the social work profession. This is to say that social workers are judicious in their embrace of technological advancement, incorporating what is useful and innovative about these new tools while enshrining the best parts of in-person social work practice.

Innovations in technology have also helped expand educational opportunities for aspiring social workers, with many choosing to pursue their MSW online. This has proven to be a boon for students who need to work or balance family responsibilities with being a graduate student, and the social work profession has in turn benefitted from a larger pool of incoming social workers.

The Need for Cultural Competence in Social Work

Another of the emerging issues in the social work field is a growing discussion around cultural competence. This is the recognition that social workers frequently work with others of different backgrounds, from racial and ethnic identities to gender and sexual orientations to religious and spiritual beliefs.

Performing your duties with sensitivity to others’ cultural backgrounds is crucial to providing real support as a social worker.

But one can’t simply enact cultural competence on instinct alone. Rather, cultural sensitivity requires educating oneself on other perspectives and experiences, as well as the historical, economic, and political factors that produce different demographic experiences on a societal level. Because of this, degree programs and continuing education courses now provide ample time to educate students in cultural competence, which is an investment in deeper and more responsive social workers overall.

The Rise of Macro-Level Social Work

Another of the top social work industry trends is a newfound interest among social workers in engaging in policy reform advocacy. Many social workers work for public institutions, and even more work for non-government institutions that are nevertheless directly affected by public policy. Because of this, social workers often gain particular insight into how policy affects their working conditions – and in turn, how that affects the populations they serve.

For this reason, many social workers decide to get involved in advocacy work and activism. Using expertise gained from their studies and their firsthand experience, social workers are able to offer valuable perspectives, speaking up on behalf of those they help to help improve the institutions they work for. For many social workers, this is as important of a job as the day to day services they provide to others.

Why has this change come about? One can partly thank the internet, which has connected social workers across cities and states to compare notes about their experiences and build solidarity in shared initiatives. The internet has also educated social workers more deeply about the causes they care about, helping them build out strategies to improve and reform the social work field.

These are just a few of the emerging trends in the social work profession, and they are ones any social worker is likely to encounter in graduate school and on the job.


Do different social work jobs require different types of MSW?

No. There is only one type of MSW degree, and it provides the foundation from which you can work in any employment context within the social work profession. What will be important is your licensure level. If you intend to perform counseling or other therapeutic services, you will need to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Many social workers who work in medical facilities also have this license. For administrative and managerial roles, you can apply to become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) directly out of your MSW program.

How do social workers choose their area of specialization?

Social workers arrive at their specializations in a variety of ways. Some go into their MSW programs knowing exactly what they would like to pursue, while others explore the field while they are in school. Field work opportunities, which are typically a large part of the second year of an MSW, also can provide social workers with useful exposure to on-the-ground work experiences, which can help direct one’s professional path. In other words, there’s no one way to find your social work focus area, and it’s a great idea to be open and inquisitive while you complete your social work education.

Can social workers work in corporate settings without an MSW?

No. In order to legitimately provide social work services such as counseling and therapy, one must be a licensed social worker. In the state of North Carolina, this means completing an MSW degree program and passing the exam for whatever level of license you wish to obtain.

Can social workers have private practices?

Yes. Many social workers are able to start thriving private practices, which can be a terrific opportunity for people who wish to work for themselves and make good money while doing so. Many social workers open private practices after launching their careers through more traditional institutional paths, which can provide valuable work experience and exposure to on-the-ground issues, making for a smoother experience of running a business privately.