Careers in Social Work and Youth Work
Social workers and youth workers both work with vulnerable or disadvantaged groups in society, and try to improve their lives. These are very much jobs that make a real difference to both society and to clients themselves. Like many such jobs, they are not necessarily very well-paid, but the rewards come in job satisfaction and the knowledge that what you are doing is important.
Both social workers and youth workers need some core skills, such as good communication skills, and empathy and understanding. However, there are also some core differences, including the entry requirements, the level of professional qualifications required, and the precise type of work you will be doing. This page explains more about these two types of work, and the skills needed to do them.
Understanding Social Work and Youth Work
Social workers work with vulnerable children and adults, including older people. They help to protect them from harm, or support them to live independently.
In the UK, many social workers are employed by local councils to provide statutory services such as older people’s support or child protection services. Some may also work in the third sector, for charities that provide direct services to vulnerable groups or individuals.
On a day-to-day basis, social work involves:
Talking to clients to provide information and counselling, or help to develop support plans for clients or their families;
Carrying out formal or informal assessments of clients’ situations;
Helping clients to develop and maintain the skills that they need to live independently;
Ensuring that clients are safe, or take action to make sure that they are protected from harm;
Working closely with other professionals, including teachers, healthcare professionals and police or probation officers; and
Keeping records, writing reports and discussing cases with your managers or people in other agencies.
Social workers operate in a variety of settings, including council or charity offices, community centres, hospitals, care homes, and visiting clients’ homes.
Youth workers work with young people (generally aged between about 11 and 25 years old) and help them to develop and reach their potential.
Their work may be as simple as organising activities such as youth clubs or sports. However, they may also be responsible for running specific projects focusing on key issues affecting young people such as drugs, crime, bullying or health. They may also support and mentor individuals or groups considered to be at risk in some way (for example, of offending or getting involved in drugs). Like social workers, they may spend time writing reports and discussing individuals or groups with workers from other agencies. Also, like social workers, they may work in a variety of settings, including schools, colleges, community centres, outreach centres and council or charity offices.
Collaboration opportunities and similar careers
Social workers and youth workers often work closely together. They also both work closely with teachers, probation officers and police officers.
You can find out more about these other careers in our pages on:
Skills Needed for Careers in Social Work and Youth Work
Both social work and youth work have a variety of routes to entry.
Social work is generally a graduate-level job
Social workers may take a degree or degree apprenticeship in social work. They may also take a degree in another subject, and then join a social work graduate training scheme.
Both social work degrees and training schemes may need to be approved by the relevant governing body in the country in which you live, so it is worth checking this in advance. Social workers themselves may also have to be registered with the governing body. In England, for example, this is Social Work England.
However, social work assistants and social work support officers require a lower level of qualification. If you want to become a social worker, one of these roles may be a good way to obtain experience.
Youth work has a slightly lower level of entry
Many people do enter as graduates, either having done a related degree such as youth and community work, or community and youth studies. There are also degree apprenticeships available in youth work.
However, it is also possible to enter via lower-level apprenticeships, or taking a diploma-level qualification at college. Many people complete training while working on the job. It is also possible to move from a related career, such as social work or teaching, without further qualifications.
In the UK, you can also take a postgraduate qualification to give you professional youth worker status.
The two roles also need many similar skills, although there are also some differences.
Social workers, social work assistants and youth workers need:
Thoroughness and attention to detail, as well as good observational skills to notice when something is wrong, or just ‘off’ with a client;
Organisational skills to manage multiple cases or projects at once;
Problem-solving skills, to enable you to provide solutions to clients;
For youth workers in particular, creative thinking skills to develop new and appropriate activities for groups and individuals;
Good team-working, because both social work and youth work require collaboration both within and across agencies, as well as working closely with families; and
The ability to accept criticism, because social workers in particular often have to do things that clients’ families do not like.
Social workers also need an understanding of sociology, usually gained from their study. They must be willing to learn about society and the statutory obligations under which they operate. A grasp of psychology will be helpful for youth workers, as will customer service skills.
Both social workers and youth workers may be required to work outside normal hours, including in on-call rotas.
A Challenging but Rewarding Field
Both social work and youth work can be extremely challenging. Social workers and youth workers work with very vulnerable people, and the work can therefore be emotionally difficult. There may also be difficult decisions to make, albeit with support.
However, both also offer job satisfaction. Job-holders know that what they are doing really makes a difference to both individuals and society.