15 Top Skills for Social Workers (And How To Improve Them)
Updated March 28, 2023
Social work can be a demanding industry that requires working with people with diverse needs. Individuals in this field must develop a unique skill set to excel in the workplace. Learning about these required skills can help you determine your social work abilities and areas that need improvement.
In this article, we describe what skills are required for social work, how to improve them and how to highlight them during the hiring process.
What is social work?
Social work is a profession committed to helping individuals and communities work through challenges they encounter in everyday life. Social workers are employed in various settings to advocate for and improve lives. They may work with general populations or specialize in areas, such as mental health, children or veterans. Their roles can be very beneficial to others as well as for themselves.
Employment in the field is growing fast. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts jobs will grow 9% by 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. About 74,700 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.
Social work skills include soft skills, such as organization and communication, and technical skills directly related to the job, like client evaluation. Social workers develop these skills through education, training and experience. They should continually practice and improve their skills to keep up with job demands.
15 skills and characteristics to succeed in social work
Here are important skills that help social workers succeed in their careers:
1. Active listening
A large part of a social worker’s duties involves actively listening to their clients. This skill helps you determine the client’s exact concerns to better help them. Active listening helps build trust, establish a good relationship and convey respect. It also allows you to understand instructions from managers, psychologists and other professionals.
Social work promotes social justice and empowers clients and communities through advocacy. You verbally represent your clients to connect them with the services, resources and opportunities with supportive organizations. This is especially true with clients who don’t know how to advocate for themselves. You help individuals, families and communities by advocating for them specifically, but also for social justice through the advocacy of new programs, revision of outdated policies and expansions of underserving programs.
3. Boundary setting
Social work can be a demanding, stressful field. Most experienced social workers suggest setting boundaries to establish a work-life balance. Setting boundaries based on your availability and resources with clients and other professionals is important to prevent burnout and maintain positive relationships.
For example, you could set a schedule to leave work no later than 7 p.m. In social work, your schedule can fluctuate based on need, but having a rough start and finish time will help define boundaries and help you avoid burnout.
4. Communication skills
Social workers work with various clients, mental health care professionals, and others. Effective communication skills can help you work more closely with clients, prepare thorough cases and give detailed directions. You also use communication skills to clearly describe what you need your clients to do, how you will help and what goals you hope to achieve together.
Good communication skills are especially important when dealing with children. You may work with them directly or as a client’s family member. Here are some tips for communicating with children:
Pay attention to their nonverbal cues.
Talk about everyday things, such as sports, hobbies or favorite toys.
Be open to all feelings, such as anger, happiness, sadness and fear.
Give the child your complete attention by putting away your phone, laptop or notepad.
Play with the child to put them more at ease as you ask questions.
5. Critical thinking
Social workers need critical-thinking skills to evaluate a case’s facts. You will often work with individuals or families needing assistance to find the best solution or resources. You will be expected to make educated judgments, locate the greatest resources, and build the best strategy to serve your clients without bias.
6. Cultural competency
Social workers must be able to serve their clients with sensitivity to their diverse and potentially underrepresented perspectives. To be culturally competent, you should examine your background and beliefs and seek to learn more about other cultures and identities. By having this open respect for and desire to learn from others, you can, in turn, provide a better service and experience for your clients.
Like with many other careers, social work involves paperwork and documentation. Your documentation skills will help you keep files updated, establish progress reports and collaborate with others in your field to organize a comprehensive treatment or management plan for your clients.
8. Emotional intelligence and empathy
Social workers must use emotional intelligence and empathy to interpret their clients’ views, emotions and communication styles. These skills work together to let \you better understand the different aspects of your clients’ needs and ask the right follow-up questions to gather more information.
Social workers must have leadership skills to help promote social change. In your role, you’ll engage with stakeholders and organizations to manage strategy, advocate for positive change and maintain relationships. You may be required to have a “take charge” attitude as an advocate for your clients.
Social workers often work on multiple cases at once and organizational skills can help them stay on task. You will need to organize paper and electronic files and ensure each case is updated, sometimes across different systems. Organizational skills can also help you prioritize cases based on client needs.
Social work requires patience with clients, supporting agencies and other providers. As you work directly with a client, you’ll need to be patient as it may take time for them to open up to you. Patience and perseverance will help you determine what may be causing your client’s challenges. This will help you avoid hasty decisions that can lead to poor outcomes for your client.
Social workers must establish achievable goals with their clients. The ability to inspire and encourage others is a valuable skill as you work with clients to made decisions, take actions and advocate for themselves. Knowing different methods of motivation can help you persuade clients with different personalities, experiences, and objections.
Social workers must have a professional commitment to social work values and ethics. To succeed as a social worker, it’s important to constantly learn and develop better ways to serve your clients, whether through classes or hands-on learning. You should be committed to applying your knowledge professionally to improve what and how you offer underserved populations.
Treating individuals with respect is an important skill for social workers. You will likely have clients from many diverse backgrounds and with different beliefs. Being respectful of these beliefs and treating everyone with dignity is essential. Examples of respect iinclude giving individuals at every level your attention, listening to their opinions and speaking with kindness.
15. Time management skills
Since social workers usually have a large caseload, they need time management skills to ensure each client gets the attention they need. It allows you to interact with clients and complete administrative tasks. Time management also provides you with time to be flexible and dependable, both of which are important in a social worker role.
How to improve social work skills
You can improve your social work skills by following these steps:
1. Make a list of your current skill set
Evaluate your current skills to learn more about how comfortable you feel, and to identify abilities you want to develop. Take notes or list how you work and what skills you might need to improve.
2. Ask for feedback
Ask trusted friends, colleagues and managers for feedback about your current skills. They should be able to provide a different perspective that can help you determine where you excel and where you can improve.
You can improve many skills, such as organization and time management, with practice. Take every opportunity to practice, and continue asking for feedback periodically to measure your progress.
4. Take courses online
There are many courses you can complete online that can help you improve certain soft skills. You can often find free courses that you can finish on your own time. Much of the ongoing training and education you receive as a social worker can also help you develop skills.
How to highlight social work skills
During the hiring process, you can highlight your social work skills on your resume and in the job interview to advance your career goals. Here’s how:
In your interview
Employers want to know what motivates you and verify your commitment to the job of a social worker. They also want to assess your interests and commitment to helping certain clients. Be honest with your answers and remember to emphasize your skills and what you can bring to the role.
In your cover letter
Writing a great social worker cover letter is an important step in your job search journey. When writing a cover letter, be sure to reference the requirements listed in the job description. In your letter, reference your most relevant or exceptional qualifications to help employers see why you’re a great fit for the role. To avoid a generic cover letter, you should conduct in-depth research on the company and the role you seek before writing your cover letter.
On your resume
There are many opportunities to highlight social work skills on your resume. In the skills section of your resume, add your best abilities toward the top of the list. Review the job description for the positions you’re applying for to see if there are any specific skills the employer wants. If you have any of the skills, list them on your resume as well.
Show how you’ve used specific skills in your work experience section. For example, a job responsibility that shows communication could be:
“Met with four clients per day on average to determine specific needs and deliver updates.”
Example of a social worker resume
- Collaborate with the interdisciplinary team to manage cases for clients living in two community group homes
- Maintain an annual event calendar that features over 45 holiday celebrations, community trips and other activities
- Facilitate counseling for family members and loved ones to help them address their concerns and provide their support
- Fulfill funding requirements by maintaining proper documentation
- Oversee weekly social skills and self-esteem building programs that help clients transition back into the community
- Supported the social work team by reviewing treatment plans and psychosocial assessments to ensure the use of proper intervention techniques
- Drafted more than 30 policies, guidelines and procedures for the social service program to improve consistency
- Helped facilitate short-term counseling sessions and group counseling sessions while taking notes to maintain accurate client records
- Compiled a thorough database of referral resources for the surrounding area to improve recommendations to clients
- Worked with colleagues to develop well-rounded programs for clients to support their goals
- Reviewed psychosocial assessments and maintained organized databases with client notes
- Licensed Social Worker (LSW), 2022
- Active listening
- Case planning
- Case assessment
Related: 15 Types of Social Work Jobs
15 other careers that use social work-related skills
Social workers may expand their career options by pursuing positions that use their social work-related seeks. Options include:
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