What Does a Social Worker Do (and How Do I Become One)?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how you can help improve the lives of others with a role in social work.

[Featured image] A social worker holding a case file and a cup of coffee smiles at the camera.

A skilled social worker works with people, groups, and communities to help them learn to live better lives. In this role, you’ll typically work with populations of all ages suffering from poverty, discrimination, or other social injustices. 

Professional social workers aim to create change and encourage the resilience of individuals, families, and communities. Let’s take a closer look at what social workers do, why you should consider a career in social work, and how you can get started.

What is social work?

The International Federation of Social Workers defines social work as “a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people” [1]. As a social worker, you can implement important changes in your community. 

Social workers are needed in settings such as:

  • Hospitals

  • Child welfare agencies

  • Community development organizations

  • Schools

  • Private practices

  • Government agencies

  • Mental health clinics

  • Youth drop-in centres

Tasks and responsibilities of a social worker

Social work combines many aspects of counselling and psychology while focusing on client case management. Take a look at what types of responsibilities you'll have if you become a social worker in one of these main settings:

  • Family and schools: Social workers who work with families in the community may advocate for what’s in the best interest of a child’s upbringing. Social workers in educational settings work with teachers, students, and families to solve problems impacting children, such as bullying and learning challenges.

  • Health care: Social workers in medical and public health settings support critically ill patients and their families by helping them find resources and health care needs. Geriatric social work is a growing need in health care because of Canada's rapidly aging population.

  • Substance use disorder: Social workers in mental health and substance use disorder settings assist patients with therapy and finding financially available rehabilitation. Social workers may also work in the community to participate in outreach and preventative programs related to substance use disorder.

Learn more about the three categories of social work:

Social worker skills and knowledge

Depending on where you work, you will need specific skills and knowledge relevant to your working population. Building a strong foundational skill set will empower you to help others in the most effective way possible. 

Set yourself up for success by building the following people skills: 

  • Communication skills, which include active listening and setting boundaries, help you form relationships with people to gather information about their challenges.

  • Empathy equips you to understand how another person feels about a situation.

  • Critical thinking helps you objectively analyze a client’s situation based on observations, interviews, and research.

  • Organizational and time management skills are necessary to manage and document complex cases and the many needs of multiple clients.

  • Self-care techniques empower you to maintain a healthy work-life balance in an emotionally demanding field.

As you earn your degree and progress in your career as a social worker, you’ll build more specialized knowledge targeted towards your day-to-day work: 

  • Core frameworks of social work create the foundation for understanding ecological systems, social justice, cultural humility, and other practices that define populations. 

  • Active and reflective listening skills equip you to engage in meaningful conversation with someone to understand their thoughts and allow for effective problem-solving.

  • Interviewing and counselling techniques include a range of approaches used with clients to help them understand how they can make desired changes in their lives. 

  • Global assessment of functioning (GAF) is a tool used to assess a client’s ability to function. 

Why pursue a career in social work?

As a social worker, you can make a real difference in your community by addressing growing problems in mental health, aging, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, chronic illness, homelessness, and food insecurity. Social work also includes addressing social issues such as domestic violence, discrimination, and unemployment. 

How much do social workers make?

According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for social workers in Canada is $70,378. Depending on where you live and other factors, you could earn from $56,000 to $82,000 annually [2]. 

Social worker job outlook

The job outlook for social workers in Canada is projected to rise through 2028. The increase is due to retirements and an increase in service demand.

How to become a social worker

To work as a social worker in Canada, you will need a bachelor’s degree in social work, except for Alberta, which requires either a bachelor’s degree or a diploma in social work.

Depending on where you live and choose to work, you may also need:

  • A supervised practicum

  • Provincial/territorial written and oral examinations

  • Membership in a provincial/territorial association of social workers

According to the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW), some provinces require certification and registration [3]. They include:

  • Alberta

  • British Columbia

  • Manitoba

  • New Brunswick

  • Newfoundland and Labrador

  • Northwest Territories

  • Nova Scotia

  • Ontario

  • Prince Edward Island

  • Quebec

  • Saskatchewan

Get started with Coursera.

If you are passionate about helping others, take the next step towards a career in social work with the Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MasterTrack® Certificate from the University of Michigan (the top-rated school of social work in the United States). You can earn a university-issued credential in as little as six months. If you decide to enroll in the University of Michigan Master of Social Work (MSW) program, your coursework will count towards your degree.  

Article sources


IFSW. "Global Definition of Social Work, https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/." Accessed June 3, 2024.

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