Making Money as a New Social Worker
One of the first things a graduate professor of ours said the minute she walked into our class, with a southern drawl giving the impression of free-spirited yet incisive nonchalance was, “You guys know you’re not going to make a lot of money, right?”
Aware of Bureau of Labor statistics stating that the median annual wage for social workers has stood near $44,200 (Bureau of Labor, 2012), our class’ laughter was infused with the enthusiastic acceptance of challenge, as well as tinged with the terror of future bankruptcy (especially given the bill of attending a fine Jesuit institution).
Why Are We “Poor?”
While social work is not a profession that most of us go into for the money, the amount of physical, financial, emotional, educational (including post-grad), and licensing requirements to enter the profession comparably make it one of the lowest-paid graduate degrees out there (CNN Money, 2011; Monster, n.d.; Payscale, 2014).
From a social justice viewpoint, and as a male making observations in a mostly female-pioneered profession, accepting lower wages than our peers with the same or lower educational levels can be considered a symptom of the oppression that this profession continues to experience. However, I also believe that our collective ability to advocate for our own needs, especially in a profession that demands many of our material and internal resources, will strengthen our ability to advocate for our client’s needs.
First Steps in the Real World
Regardless of your state or subfield of social work, the most important thing to do right after you graduate is to get licensed. There are jobs that will hire you with just your MSW degree (e.g., Generalist, macro, and nonclinical and administrative-related positions, such as a family preventative services agency). There are also agencies that will hire you on the condition that you take your licensing test within a limited timeframe. This is often true of field placements that hire students after they graduate.
Also, you can only start accruing hours for your independent practice license (In many states, this is the LCSW, or license in clinical social work) only after you obtain your initial license (e.g., The LMSW, the LSW in New Jersey, or the LLMSW in Michigan). Even if you plan on pursuing your doctorate, it is important to remember that a doctorate does not replace licensure and practice at the highest level.
Salary Versus Fee-for-Service
Many areas of practice are starting to move to a fee-for-service model (NASW NYC, n.d.), especially if you work in a clinical setting. While this may offer more flexibility, it is often not the best option for many social workers because you only get compensated for session hours billed. This can bring an unpredictable income when a clinician starts out; you will not get paid for clients who do not show up, and time spent at the office completing paperwork and case managing is done on your own time.
However, fee-for-service work is a great way for social workers to supplement their income, or it can be a way to accrue clinical hours on the side if your primary workplace is not a clinical setting. Salaried work right after graduation is often found in larger agencies, hospitals, and in the government. At the time of writing, social work positions in the government (e.g., Veteran’s Administration) often offer up to $80,000 or more per year (USAjobs.gov, 2014), with licensure at the highest level.
Private practitioners also have a high earning potential, but depending on business/market conditions and the practitioner’s business skill, they can also earn less than the average social worker. Since private practice is a business, it is a fee-for-service setup with variable success dependent on many factors including overhead, connections, market saturation, and good business planning.
Not Burning Yourself Out
While good financial smarts and determination will help a social worker succeed financially, this can only happen if a social worker ethically chases their passions and uses them as a primary fuel. We are ultimately molding a career based out of a desire to help others by using our unique strengths, not attaining “tricks or techniques” to make money. Our work will give more authentic fruit when it is something that we are enlivened by.
To paraphrase therapy coach Lynn Grodzki’s words, working out of love will always conquer working out of fear (Grodzki, 2000). In the long run, the private private practitioner who takes a risk by opening a practice because she wants to do narrative drama therapy with children (or insert your special clinical interest here), will be more successful than the practitioner who, out of a “need to survive,” opens a generalist practice that will take any and all clients. It is also based on the principle that a good social worker will draw from an authentic use of self and passion that translates into skill development and competence in their area of practice (NASW, 1996).
While as a new social worker it may take some time to build to that independent point, having a directed focus is the guiding principle that can help many of us steer our networking, self-advocacy in pay, continuing education, and projects in the direction of our dreams. In this spirit, believing and empowering ourselves to achieve those dreams within livable means will flow into our work of empowering our clients to also believe in and reach their own self-actualization.
Aronowitz, E. (n.d.). A Brief (But Explosive) History of Pay-Per-Session Social Work Practice In Mental Health Clinics. NASW-NYC. Retrieved May 21, 2014, from http://www.naswnyc.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=377
Ellis, B. (2011, January 14). College degrees that don’t pay. CNNMoney. Retrieved May 24, 2014, from http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2010/pf/100
Grodzki, L. (2000). Building your ideal private practice: a guide for therapists and other healing professionals. New York: W.W. Norton.
Pfeuffer, C. (n.d.). Best-Paying and Worst-Paying Master’s Degrees. Monster. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://career-advice.monster.com/salary-benefits/salary-information/best-and-worst-paying-masters-degrees/article.aspx
National Association of Social Workers. (approved 1996, revised 1999). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. [italicize the title] Washington, DC: Author.
Social Workers: Occupational Outlook. (2012). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-5
Social Worker Salary (United States). (2014). Social Worker (US) Salary. Retrieved May 24, 2014, from http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job
USAJOBS – The Federal Government’s Official Jobs Site. (2014). USAJOBS – The Federal Government’s Official Jobs Site. Retrieved May 24, 2014, from https://www.usajobs.gov/