How To Become A Veterans Social WorkerUpdated: November 27, 2020
Social workers help their clients with coping and problem solving. There are different varieties of social work including clinical social work which involves diagnosis, treatment, and related areas requiring training, licensure, and relevant skills.
There are social workers who specialize in working with veterans at a variety of levels and there are many career opportunities for veterans social workers both at the Department of Veterans Affairs and in the private sector.
Those who do social work for the VA may help veterans with a variety of needs and issues including healthcare, education options, housing and homelessness prevention, VA pensions, mental health care, and more.
What Is A Social Worker?
Didn’t we just define what a social worker does? In the adage of the old commercials, “…but wait, there’s MORE!” Social work requires certain educational credentials as well as state licensure. State requirements will vary depending on the state so don’t expect any uniformity in those requirements across state lines.
Some states may require a license no matter what level you do social work at, while others may allow lower-level (non-clinical) social work without requiring a state-level credential as long as you meet the other requirements.
Still other states may allow provisional social work activities (again, non-clinical) while you pursue credentialing. These rules and requirements vary depending on location, current federal and state laws, etc.
Social Worker Education Requirements
You may find that there are few pathways to paying social work jobs without meeting the requisite education standards.
Social worker educational requirement often include:
- A Bachelor’s degree in an accredited program specifically addressing social work
- A Masters degree in an accredited program that specifically addresses social work
- Degrees in specific areas of social work depending on the job such as substance abuse
Why are the educational requirements important? For starters, you may not be eligible to apply for state licensure without meeting a minimum set of educational standards. A good example is found with the State of California, which requires the following:
College Degree: You must have a Bachelor’s or Masters degree in social work in order to work in California. You do NOT need a state license for certain social worker positions UNLESS you want to be employed as a clinical social worker.
In those cases you will be required to obtain a Masters of Social Work and state-issued credentials as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Continuing education and a minimum number of experience hours are also required.
Continuing Education: In California you may be required to take additional coursework above and beyond your degrees in a variety of areas that may include:
- Child abuse assessment
- Child abuse reporting
- Human sexuality
- Substance dependency
- Spousal or partner abuse
- Assessment detection
- Long-term care
- Elder/dependent adult abuse
- California law
- Professional ethics
Veteran-Centric Social Work Degrees
Some institutions have social work programs with specific focus on veteran communities and/or military communities. Selected schools which have offered such programs in the past include:
- University of Central Florida
- Colorado State University – Global Campus
- Dominican University
- University of Louisville
- Hawaii Pacific University
- University of Southern California
- The University of Texas at Austin
- Tulane University
After Obtaining A Degree
Those who wish to become state licensed will, after obtaining the appropriate degree, pass an Association of Social Work Boards exam, which may be taken after obtaining a Bachelor’s or Masters degree–you’ll need to consult your school to learn when and how to take this exam.
Core Competencies For Social Work
You’ll find a lot of online articles discussing the core competencies for social workers. A lot of them reference lists of human traits such as compassion, empathy, the ability to listen, and more.
And it’s true that these are all required, but there are more concrete competencies to be aware of. The official site of Boston University notes that there’s a national accrediting agency for social work education. The Council on Social Work Education requires all Master of Social Work programs “develop and implement an explicit curriculum that prepares graduates for practice” by mastering a set of core competencies that includes:
- Demonstrating Ethical and Professional Behavior
- Engaging Diversity and Difference in Practice
- Advancing Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice
- Engaging In Practice-Informed Research and Research-Informed Practice
- Engaging in Policy Practice
- Engaging with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Assessing Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Intervention with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
- Evaluating Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
Education Degree “Levels”
Some in the social work industry describe new social workers who hold Bachelor’s degrees as “generalists” while viewing those with more advanced degrees as specialists. Career paths within the social work industry vary greatly depending on your degree and continuing education; by the time a Social Work student reaches the Masters Degree level, they likely have a much better idea of what areas of social work they wish to concentrate on such as being a veterans social worker.
Credentialing In One State, Working In Another?
Some states do have reciprocity agreements with certain kinds of credentials. You may be able to acquire social work licensure or other credentials in a new state faster than you obtained your originals but much depends on the states involved and whether they agree on the professional standards required.
Learn What Your State’s Requirements Are For Social Work
The quickest and easiest way to learn what credentials and education you will need in your state to get started as a social worker may be to go to a state or local job resource board and search for social worker jobs–you will find a list of requirements that can help guide you to make the right choices for schooling and on-the-job experience.
Another way to do this is to approach the nearest college or university that has a Social Worker degree program appropriate to the education level you seek (Bachelor’s, Masters, or PhD) and review the requirements there before talking to an admissions counselor.
And what about those who wish to ultimately wind up doing social work for veterans and especially at the federal level at agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs?
How To Become A Veterans Social Worker
If you want to work at the state or local level, the advice given above about learning the local credentialing requirements is a great way to get started. If you have not entered an educational program to get your Bachelor’s or Masters in Social Work, that will be the first thing you’ll need to address.
Those who already hold degrees will need to determine whether the jobs they seek require state licensure. In the meantime you are required to earn the state’s quota of on-the-job training or other hands-on work in the field and pursue any continuing education requirements.
Your job options as a veterans social worker may, depending on location, include substance abuse counseling, suicide prevention hotlines, state-level departments of veterans affairs, etc.
But there are plenty of opportunities at the federal level including the Department of Justice, Social Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Department of VA is said to be the largest employer of social workers in the USA–at least for those who hold masters degrees or higher. What does it take to get hired as a social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs?
The requirements will vary greatly depending on the level of work (entry level, executive level, etc.) and other variables. Here is a list of requirements from one social worker job mentioned on the Parallel Desk job board:
- Must be proficient in spoken and written English.
- Must have a Masters degree in Social Work (MSW) from a school of social work fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
- A doctoral degree in social work may not be substituted for the master’s degree in social work. Must be licensed or certified by a state to independently practice social work at the advanced practice level.
- May qualify based on being covered by the Grandfathering Provision as described in the VA Qualification Standard for this occupation.
There are too many VA.gov-level social worker jobs to list here but suffice it to say that this type of employment has many options including working with veterans in need of legal assistance, those struggling with homelessness, mental health issues, etc.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has established partnerships with many graduate schools and the agency is responsible for training some one thousand social workers with masters degrees per year.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News