Once you have qualified and successfully completed your first year you will want to think about career progression: how you would like your career to develop over the next five years plus. Planning ahead makes sense.
Services for adults or services for children
The first consideration is whether you want to work in services for adults or services for children. The opportunities open to you may be shaped by the placements you have had as a student and your first job.
While social workers do make the transition from one side to the other, it is much harder to join adult social work services if all your experience as a social worker has been in children’s services or vice versa.
The next step is to think about ‘horizontal progression’ and ‘vertical progression’. Horizontal progression is about gaining skills and experience by making ‘sideways’ moves, for example, moving from children’s safeguarding to fostering or within adult services to a more specialist role.
Opportunities on the children’s side might include specialising in safeguarding, children in care, fostering, adoption, kinship care, asylum seeking children and child and adolescent mental health services.
Opportunities on the adult side might include care assessment and review, mental health (and approved mental health work), specialisms with alcohol and other drugs, work with people with a learning disability, older people, or mental capacity assessment.
Bear in mind that how services are organised, and the names used to describe specific social work services vary - not only from country to country but also from local authority to local authority. Do check carefully the job description and what the team does before you apply and check at interview how they envision the role they are interviewing for.
Horizontal progression can be very satisfying - but it will mean that your income will remain broadly the same.
Supervisory and management
Vertical progression usually involves moving up the supervisory and management ladder. This may involve managing a team before going on to manage a service (a collection of teams) in a specific area.
The next step is sometimes principle social worker or assistant director. In these roles you are expected not only to have your social work expertise but also to be an effective manager, for example, supporting staff and maintaining practice standards.
Needless to say, the more senior the role, the number of job opportunities at that level diminish.
Vertical progression though starts small: do you want to supervise a student in placement? Do you enjoy helping more junior colleagues to see things from a different perspective? Do you think that things in a team you managed could be done better?
Vertical progression also gives opportunity to increase income.
Talk to colleagues and plan
Do talk to colleagues across the workplace about what their jobs entail. Social workers carry huge amounts of experience in their heads and a twenty-minute conversation can result in thoughts ranging from ‘that sounds really interesting’ to ‘very important stuff …but not for me’.
An effective plan for career progression involves testing reality so where you can do observe colleagues at their work. What are they actually doing (as opposed to what they say the job involves)? Are they obviously enjoying their job, and if so, what’s that about? Many of these will be chance observations rather than anything planned. But as one wise social worker said, you can see a lot just by looking.
Teaching or researching social work
Other longer term career routes can involve a role at a university (teaching or researching social work).
Increasingly, you will be expected to be studying for, or have, a doctorate.
Other social workers move to the voluntary sector.
This may involve less pressure of ‘statutory’ work- but salaries can be much lower, perhaps half the rate of local authority social work salaries.
Many social workers will have career breaks: for example, for family, or because they are carers or for extended travel.
Tempting though it may be do not relinquish your social work registration during this period: once you are de-registered it is extremely hard to re-register.
However ambivalent you may feel about social work during your time out maintaining your registration gives you options for the future….