How to become a social worker

Jemma Smith, Editor
July, 2017

If you're a people-centred problem solver with an interest in supporting individuals and families find out how to become a social worker

There's more to social work than the stereotype of removing children from their families. It's a challenging and rewarding profession, which aims to tackle some of society's most complex problems.

As a social worker you can work in a variety of settings such as local authorities, NHS Trusts or the voluntary or private sectors with a diverse client base including children, adults, the elderly, families and those with disabilities, addictions, learning difficulties and mental health issues.

Vacancy rates for social workers in the statutory sector have increased from 7% in 2012 to 11% in 2016, while the number of graduates entering social work training has decreased, creating an increasing demand for social workers that employers are looking to fill with enthusiastic, forward-thinking graduates.


There are a number of routes you can take to become a social worker.

This is a graduate profession so firstly you'll need a degree at undergraduate or Masters level (if your first degree is unrelated).

You could then opt for a fast-track training programme such as Step Up to Social Work, Frontline or Think Ahead.

To find out more about the different entry routes and social work bursaries see social work courses.

Skills for social workers

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 the 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 communicate and 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.
  • 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.

Work experience

Relevant work experience is essential. You're unlikely to get on to a Masters course, fast-track programme or secure a job without it. The best way to learn about the profession and gain an insight into whether this type of work is for you is through volunteering.

Taking on a voluntary position demonstrates your commitment to social work and is an excellent way to build useful s 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. 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 dedicate your time to manning the phone lines at 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 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.

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 ing 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 s.

Discover more about work experience and internships.

Social work apprenticeships

A group of local authorities in England, supported by Skills for Care have put forward plans to the government for the first integrated social work degree apprenticeship. If approved this will offer another route to becoming a social worker.

The government's decision on whether the scheme will go ahead is expected by December 2017.

Development of the Integrated Degree Apprenticeship for Social Workers apprenticeship standard is still in the early stages but the scheme is expected to last three years and will see trainees undergo a mixture of on-the-job training and university study, resulting in a degree and the attainment of professional social worker status. Apprentices will be paid from day one, receiving at least the National Minimum Wage, currently £3.50, although employers may pay considerably more.

If approved by the government it is hoped that the scheme will commence in autumn 2018, although scheme details and the apprenticeship standard are yet to be finalised. For more information see .

Finding a job

In February 2017 there were 90,369 social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Once you've gained the right combination of qualifications and experience you could join them.

Fast-track training schemes such as Step Up to Social Work, Frontline and Think Ahead often lead directly into full-time employment as do apprenticeships, 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, for careers in NHS Trusts and the job pages of charitable organisations you're interested in working for.
  • Use your s - make use of social media channels such as LinkedIn and Twitter and your university alumni network to let s know that you're looking for a job in social work.
  • Join professional bodies - gaining membership of 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 , and 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.

Social work interviews

The majority of social work interviews are carried out by a panel. While this may seem daunting it has its advantages - meeting more than one interviewer means you'll have multiple chances to impress. Some employers may ask you to complete written assessments, practical tests or an in-tray exercise as part of the interview process.

As with any interview preparation is the key to success. Research the organisation that you're applying to, keep up to date with current affairs and read up on relevant legislation and policy frameworks. Read through the job description and prepare five or six examples from your previous experience that demonstrate the required competencies. Once you have these examples at the ready practise your interview technique with a careers adviser or family and friends.

At the interview you'll be asked a number of common interview questions and these are easy enough to prepare for. Questions specific to social work may include:

  • How would you prioritise your caseload?
  • What do you know about working for our local authority?
  • Which pieces of legislation do you think are important to this role?
  • How do you stay on top of your continuing professional development?
  • What is currently happening in social work policy and how could this affect your work?
  • How do you separate your work and personal life?
  • What do you hope to accomplish as a social worker?

Competency-based questions can include:

  • Describe a situation in which you handled stress successfully.
  • Give examples of when you’ve had to deal with conflict or confrontation in a work capacity.
  • Describe a time when you’ve managed a team.
  • Give an example of a time when you’ve had to think on your feet and the outcome of this.
  • Give an example of a complex case you’ve worked on. What actions did you take?

As the interview draws to a close have some questions of your own to ask the panel. You could ask about the team you’ll be joining, the level of service funding and progression opportunities. Another option is to ask where they see social work heading in the next five years to show your commitment to the profession or ask them what aspects of social work they particularly enjoy to give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.

Discover more interview tips and questions to ask at an interview.

Find out more