Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Substance Abuse Social Worker

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Substance Abuse Social Worker

Substance abuse social workers evaluate and treat people with substance abuse and addiction problems.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for substance abuse counseling and social work is expected to grow 22%, which is much faster than average for all careers, through 2031.  This is due to more people seeking treatment for addiction.  A bachelor’s degree is required for most entry-level jobs as a substance abuse social worker. However, for some positions, a master’s degree is a requisite.

Professionals in the field of substance abuse social work should find many of employment opportunities, due to new laws that are sending drug users to treatment programs, rather then to jail.

As a substance abuse social worker, individuals will be required to work with individuals from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds.  Some of the activities a substance abuse counselor will accomplish, include:

  • Providing personal assistance, emotional support, and sometimes medical attention
  • Communicating with co-workers and supervisors
  • Establishing interpersonal relationships
  • Recording and documenting information
  • Maintaining client records
  • Observing and collecting information from relevant sources
  • Counseling patients and/or clients regarding personal and substance abuse issues
  • Interviewing patients to gather information about their needs or progress

Substance Abuse Social Workers Career Guidance

Of the more than 700,000 social workers currently employed in the US, the majority work in family service agencies, for local government, hospitals, and in substance abuse treatment centers.  Substance abuse social workers typically work a 40-hour work week. However, it is not uncommon to work weekends, after hours and holidays in emergency situations.  Some substance abuse social workers work part-time, as well.

Employment in the field of substance abuse social work can be very rewarding and satisfying, as individuals and families are being helped to overcome diversity. However, the work can also be emotionally draining.  Understaffing and large caseloads add to the pressure.

Substance abuse social workers encounter individuals, families and communities affected by substance abuse disorders, or SUD’s.  Many substance abuse social workers will choose to specialize in drug, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs field, while others may choose to provide services to people and their families in specialty and non-specialty settings where substance abuse disorders are intrinsic to a patient’s presenting problems.

As of May 2022, the BLS reports that the industries with the highest levels of employment include:

  • Outpatient care centers
  • Individual and family services
  • Local government
  • Residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health and substance abuse facilities
  • Offices of other healthcare professionals
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Top paying industries by mean annual wage include:

  • Home health care services: $88,710
  • Office administration services: $87,400
  • Ambulatory healthcare service providers: $84,130
  • Insurance-related agencies and brokerage firms: $79,490
  • Offices of other health practitioners: $75,780

Top paying states for substance abuse social workers include:

Substance abuse social workers must also remain current with specialized training methods, legislations, mandates and regulations on all levels – federal, state and local.  This knowledge might include the effects of substance abuse on families, on co-workers and friends.

Typical Employment Settings for a Substance Abuse Social Worker

Substance abuse social workers can find employment in a variety of areas, including:

  • Medical hospitals
  • Child welfare and aging services
  • Courts
  • Correctional facilities
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Private practice
  • Community health centers
  • Schools
  • Detention centers
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Mental health clinics
  • Government agencies
  • Substance abuse recovery facilities

According to the BLS’s May 2022 report, the median annual wage for substance abuse social workers is $51,240 with the top ten percent making just over $97,660, and the lowest ten percent making about $34,630.

Learn how to become a substance abuse social worker.

Ways a Substance Abuse Social Worker Can Increase Desirability as a Job Candidate and Increase His or Her Salary

Individuals with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), in sociology or psychology might find employment in various entry-level positions, such as mental health assistant, residential counselor or caseworker.

However, in order to move up the ladder, earn a higher salary, and advance into management and/or administrative positions, a master’s degree in social work (preferably with a specialization in substance abuse or mental health) is necessary.

All states require some form of certification and licensing for substance abuse social workers. Some jurisdictions require professionals in the field of substance abuse social work to obtain certification separate from their primary licensing as a social worker. Gaining experience by working in a substance abuse treatment facility, or in a related sector can also help individuals advance in their career.

Advanced practice specialty credentials available to individuals who have earned their MSW, include: Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology, Qualified Clinical Social Worker, and Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker.

Attributes Employers Often Look For When Hiring a Substance Abuse Social Worker

It is said that it takes a special person to be a social worker.  This is especially true in a career as a substance abuse social worker, as individuals in this field often see people at their very worse.  There are a number of essential qualities employers look for when hiring a substance abuse social worker, such as:

  • Self Control – even in difficult situations, maintaining composure is imperative
  • Dependability – the job of a substance abuse social worker requires he or she be reliable and responsible
  • Compassionate – This field requires an individual be sensitive to the needs and feelings of his or her clients
  • Integrity – Substance abuse social workers must be honest and ethical
  • Dependable – Substance abuse social workers must be able to handle the stress that comes with this position

There are also a number of skills that substance abuse social workers should have, such as:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Patience
  • Compassion
  • Counseling skills
  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Objectivity
  • Confidentiality
  • IT skills
  • Ability to work in demanding situations
  • Ability to offer guidance
  • Ability to work with tight deadlines
  • Organization skills

Substance abuse social workers work with clients with a wide range of substance abuse disorders.  As such, they must possess knowledge and understanding of emotional and psychological factors, legal considerations, physiological issues, and co-occurrence or reoccurrence issues and statistics.

Networking Opportunities and Organizations for Substance Abuse Social Workers

There are a number of networking organizations that substance abuse social workers can gain valuable knowledge, find employment, acquire insight into changes in legislation, find resources for continuing education, and develop mentor relationships.

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2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for substance abuse social workers are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.