Social workers are often portrayed as state employees who engage with individuals and families that are in trouble. However, they actually do much more than that. Depending on your qualifications, there are different levels of social work that you can engage in.
The bulk of social workers deals with individuals and families that are underprivileged in some way. They are often struggling with addiction, abuse or neglect. But that is not all they do. Social workers at various levels have been pivotal in shaping American society.
Many of the privileges we take for granted exist because social workers at different levels campaigned for them.
As you pursue your degree in social work, you will come across micro, macro and mezzo social work. They will be a core part of your studies as you learn about the different possibilities in your career.
Understanding what they are is the first step. You can then make informed decisions about the type of training you need to pursue to work in any of these levels of social work.
For example, Keuka College online programs offer a Master’s in Social Work that allows you to work at all three levels as a generalist. In comparison, if you only have a bachelor’s degree, you will have a harder time rising to a managerial position.
Micro-level social work
This is traditional social work. It involves working with families and individuals to provide support and advice as they navigate whatever challenges they are dealing with. The typical consumer of micro-level social work is called a client.
A micro-level social worker has a dual role: they are a coach and they are also a counselor.
Their job is to provide information to clients. They educate them about available resources that they can draw from to alleviate their problems. You also provide information to your clients about how they can improve their situations.
Most clinical social workers do micro-level work. They help people with mental health and behavioral problems. Their clients suffer from addiction, low self-esteem, abuse or neglect, or are victims of domestic violence.
Micro-level social workers often specialize. They focus on clients with certain kinds of problems. They can, for example, choose clinical social work, substance abuse social work, depression and anxiety, domestic violence and even school social work.
Examples of micro-level social work include:
- Counseling clients in an addiction clinic or hospital to help them find ways of coping with their desire for drugs and alcohol
- Talking with victims to help them deal with past trauma
- Providing counseling services in hospitals to help families cope with the grief of losing a loved one
- Working within a school setting to ensure that student mental health issues are properly addressed
- Helping children who have undergone traumatic experiences in the past
- Visiting homes where there are reports of neglect, abuse or violence and removing at-risk children
Mezzo-level social work
Mezzo-level social work is not different from micro-level social work except that it focuses on a group rather than an individual. Rather than have one-on-one sessions with clients, the social worker meets with groups of people who have similar challenges or groups that share the same problem.
Unlike micro-level social work that deals with individuals, mezzo-level social work helps vulnerable populations and groups within communities.
The social worker identifies problems that affect a cross-section of individuals and invites them to participate and find solutions. Many socioeconomic, cultural and familial issues are tackled using mezzo-level social work.
Examples of mezzo-level social work include:
- A social worker works with parents and healthcare workers to implement a children’s nutrition program in a given community. Nutrition is a problem that many families in underprivileged communities have to deal with. It would take a lot of time to speak to each family individually. It takes a shorter time, and the social worker gets more feedback by getting everyone interested in coming together for meetings and discussions.
- Talking to teenagers about the hazards of drugs and alcohol. These two challenges affect teenagers in communities across the US. Rather than try to talk to each teenager individually, a social worker can organize sessions in a school or church to disseminate information, gather views and give advice on a broad scale.
- A social worker can organize meetings for mothers who face childcare challenges. Childcare is a common problem facing parents across the country, and it often leads to unforeseen complications. A good social worker steps in to try and find viable solutions.
- Mezzo-level social workers also deal with issues that affect the elderly. They organize clients in groups to discuss problems the elderly may be facing and possible solutions. They also put clients in touch with state and federal resources for the elderly.
- Needle exchange programs are another good example of mezzo-level social work.
Macro-level social work
Macro-level social work is the reason why people enroll in higher education. With a graduate degree, they can climb the career ladder and help make decisions that impact communities rather than just an individual or a family.
At the macro level, social workers are decision-makers and stakeholders. They deal with systems instead of working at the grassroots level. Typical jobs you can get as a macro-level social worker include community organization, research, community advocacy and policy development.
Examples of macro-level social work include:
- Working with government agencies and private businesses to get jobs for underprivileged women so that they can afford better housing, food and education for their children
- Helping craft policies for indigenous populations so that they can make a good living in their communities
- Implementing anti-drug and alcohol campaigns in schools
- Gathering information about substance abuse among youth to trace the various factors that are contributing to addiction
- Working with political representatives to implement programs that address inequality
Other levels of social work
There are two other levels of social work that you should consider if you are still deciding on your career path.
Policy and political social work deal with governance in social work. People who do this sort of work collaborate closely with politicians and lawmakers to bring about lasting change through legislation.
Policy social workers also work with non-profit organizations to craft policies to improve service delivery.
To become a policy social worker, you need a bachelor’s and a master’s. Look into special training designed to give a boost to your career, like the White House Fellows Program.
Remember, to be a policy social worker, you need to have a good understanding of economics, statistics and research methodologies. You also need to be politically savvy. The National Association of Social Workers has an excellent article on why social workers should run for political office.
The other type of social work that often gets overlooked is administration and management. Social work agencies are large and complex. Managing them requires a particular set of skills.
Social work administrators and managers often obtain a management qualification along with their master’s in social work. It gives them the skills necessary to ensure that these agencies run smoothly.
What level of social work is best for me?
Choosing a specialization is entirely up to you. Think about your strengths and where you would most enjoy spending your time.
There are some people, for example, who are very happy with micro-level social work. They enjoy day-to-day contact with their clients and cannot imagine dealing with groups or with organizational politics.
If you are such a person, you will be best served by choosing a specialty and focusing on it. You can become a general practitioner, a rehab counselor or any other discipline you are passionate about.
Those who have a knack for organization, management and politics do best in mezzo-level social work. However, if you would like to combine a little of mezzo-level and micro-level, you should think about finding a job that allows you to mobilize and help groups.
Do I need soft skills for social work?
The best social workers share certain qualities. They have high emotional intelligence, and they are also empathetic. They can place themselves in their client’s shoes and see things from their point of view. Other important soft skills include:
- Good communication – Social workers know how to express themselves clearly.
- Active listening – To understand client problems, social workers must listen carefully and also pick up nuances.
- Critical thinking – Social workers are often confronted with difficult situations, and they have to look for solutions to help their clients.
- Good organization and case management – A good social worker writes and files notes for each case and follows up to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
- Advocacy – A social worker, whether they work at micro, mezzo or micro levels, is an advocate. They represent and agitate for their clients to make sure they get what they need.
- Flexibility and open-mindedness – A good social worker doesn’t judge, whatever the circumstances of their client. They are open to new cultures that allow them to understand their clients.
- They can set boundaries – As a social worker, you’ll find that some of your clients become a little too attached. You are their lifeline, and they may want more from you than you can give professionally. You have to set boundaries and explain to clients that your relationship is purely professional.
- Teamwork – You will need to cooperate with a variety of professionals to do your job. You will also need to collaborate with other social workers to effectively serve your clients.
Can I move from one level of social work to another?
Yes, you can move from micro-level to mezzo-level social work quite easily. Many social workers in the US often find themselves doing both types of jobs simultaneously.
A social worker may, for example, spend the day visiting the homes of young mothers facing various challenges and then have a group meeting with them in the evening to listen to their views as a group.
The important thing to remember is that your master’s in social work equips you for both of these roles. You will learn how to deal with individuals and groups.
Is an online social work degree a good idea?
Online courses have become increasingly popular over the years. According to one source, more than 30% of American students are enrolled in an online course. For example, all Ivy League schools have already adopted online learning.
There are several reasons why so many students opt for online courses. They are flexible and cheaper than in-person classes. They also tend to take a shorter time, especially for those who can transfer credits.
This is not to say that online learning is suitable for everyone. The dropout rate for those who engage in this type of learning is higher than for those who attend in-person classes. Many underestimate the commitment needed to complete an online degree course.
To do your social work degree successfully, you need to set aside time to study every day. If you are a very busy professional, as most social workers are, this can be difficult.
You may not have time to study every day, but you must find a few hours each week to catch up with your coursework. Let your employer know that you are taking classes; they can rearrange your caseload to make time for you to study.
Whatever level of social work you choose, you need to have the right qualifications to do it properly. Whether you work at the micro-level directly with clients or at mezzo with groups, a degree will equip you with the skills to be the best social worker that you can be.
Choose your university carefully. It should be accredited and provide student support. Keuka College online programs are a good place to start. All course material is available for you to access at any time, and courses are taught by qualified and supportive professionals.
Lastly, don’t underestimate what it takes to earn a degree online, especially if you have to work at the same time.