What is the Difference Between a Social Worker and a Case Manager

Social workers and case managers often work together to assist clients in obtaining the resources they need to build a better life. In fact, sometimes these jobs overlap so much that case managers are social workers and vice versa.Yet, despite their many similarities, there are some differences between social workers and case managers. But what are those differences and why are they important?

We’ll explore how these two careers are different in the guide below.

What is a Social Worker?

A social worker is a professional that helps their clients overcome difficulties or obstacles in their lives. In many cases, social workers provide practical assistance to their clients – helping them find adequate housing, assisting them with finding employment, or connecting them with social services that help resolve another issue in their lives.

Depending on their place of employment and level of education, some social workers might also provide therapeutic treatment to their clients. Some even provide case management and coordinate services between various agencies for their clients.

So, social work is a very broad field. At any given time a social worker might be leading group therapy, consulting with service providers on behalf of a client, teaching a parenting class, or something in between.

What is a Case Manager?

A case manager is a professional that coordinates care for a client that improves mental health, physical health, or overall functioning. This includes a wide range of activities that include:

  • Client assessment
  • Identification of services
  • Care planning and coordination
  • Case evaluation
  • Advocacy

All of these activities are coordinated with other professionals. For example, a case manager might coordinate with a social worker, a counselor, and a medical doctor to ensure that a comprehensive care plan is in place for a client with behavioral and physical health issues.

What are the Differences Between Job Duties for Social Workers and Case Managers?

The primary difference between a social worker’s job and a case manager’s job is that some social workers are licensed to provide mental health treatment.

Let’s assume that a person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that their PTSD is causing significant disruptions in their daily life. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) could provide counseling to the client to help them work through the cause of their PTSD and learn strategies for identifying triggers.

A case manager, on the other hand, would focus on connecting the client with necessary resources like job training courses, a support group for people with PTSD, or outreach programs for military veterans with PTSD. In this case, a case manager’s function is to coordinate care while a social worker’s function is to provide part of that care.

As another example, a social worker might be tasked with leading a support group for people who have survived suicide. In this context, a social worker’s role is therapeutic in nature. A case manager, on the other hand, would work with the social worker and other service providers to devise a care plan that gives the client the economic, social, and logistic support they need to move forward with their lives.

How Do You Become a Social Worker?

Depending on the type of social worker you wish to become, you might need a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.

There are many entry-level social work positions for workers with a bachelor’s of social work, or BSW. A BSW is a four-year program that usually requires students to complete around 120 semester credits of study. Of those 120 credits, about half are in the field of social work while the other half are general education courses in science, math, humanities, and so forth.

If you wish to become a licensed clinical social worker, you will need to get a master’s degree in social work, or an MSW. An MSW will take anywhere from one to three years of additional study after completion of a BSW. The length of time it takes to complete the MSW program depends on many factors, not the least of which is whether you attend school part-time or full-time.

As an MSW, you not only have the ability to pursue state licensure to practice, but you also open up many more possibilities for certifications and employment opportunities. Many higher-level social work positions (even those that don’t require licensure) often require applicants to have an MSW. If you want to have the greatest level of job opportunity, pursuing an MSW is a good idea.

Be aware that to become licensed requires that you fulfill additional criteria. These criteria differ from state to state, but generally speaking, you’ll need to complete several hundred hours of supervised work and pass a standardized exam.

How Do You Become a Case Manager?

Case management typically requires a bachelor’s degree, but unlike social work, the type of bachelor’s degree you get isn’t always important.

For example, you can become a case manager with an undergraduate degree in:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Nursing
  • Public Administration

The reason the type of undergraduate degree is so diverse is because case managers work in all manner of career fields. Some work in schools. Others work in hospitals. Yet others work in law enforcement or for the courts. So, when thinking about a career as a case manager, you’ll need to determine the field in which you’d like to work before you begin a degree program.

Regardless of which field you choose to major in, you can expect to spend four years of full-time study completing a degree program with around 120 semester credit hours. Of course, you can add another one to three years to that timeline should you choose to get a master’s degree.

While many jobs in case management do not require an advanced degree, some do. For example, if you’re passionate about working as a case manager in a hospital setting, you might be required to get a master’s degree in nursing. No matter the field of work, a master’s degree will equip you with a deeper knowledge of your profession and a greater skill set for serving your clients.

In some cases, case managers become certified. There are bachelor’s and master’s-level certifications from professional organizations like the Commission for Case Manager Certification or the American Case Management Association.

What is the Difference in Salary for Social Workers and Case Managers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median yearly salary for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760. By contrast, case managers earned a median annual wage of $69,600 in 2020.

It’s important to note that the disparity in median income is a bit of a misnomer. Both of these careers have very large pay ranges to account for a variety of factors that influence how much one can earn.

For example, social workers typically earn between $33,020 and $85,820 per year. Case managers, meanwhile, earn between $42,230 and $115,800 per year. In both cases, entry-level workers (e.g., those with a bachelor’s degree and little job experience) can expect to earn a salary towards the bottom of the pay scale. By contrast, experienced workers with an advanced degree can expect to earn a salary much higher on the pay scale.

Additionally, if you’re licensed – like an LCSW – your potential income will be much more than if you are not licensed. For case managers, the potential income is likely to be much greater if you are certified and/or hold an administrative position.

Other factors that affect the salary potential for these careers include:

  • Geography – Social workers and case managers make more money in some cities and states than others.
  • Employer – Social workers and case managers that work for government agencies tend to earn more.
  • Area of specialization – A social worker that contracts with the state to evaluate defendants before their trial is likely to be in higher demand and make more money than a social worker that specializes in working with non-verbal children.

These are just a few examples, but you get the point – how much you might make in either of these careers depends on a variety of factors.

What is the Job Outlook for Social Workers and Case Managers?

The BLS predicts that social work jobs will grow by 12 percent through the end of the 2020s, which is a faster rate than the average for all jobs. At the same time, it’s predicted that jobs in case management will grow by 15 percent during the same period.

While the difference in job growth is fairly negligible from a percentage standpoint, it should be pointed out that the actual number of jobs that are expected to be created is quite different.

Over the course of the rest of this decade, it’s predicted that nearly 90,000 social work jobs will open. By contrast, it’s expected that just over 26,000 case management jobs will be available. In both cases, that’s a lot of potential for employment, but it’s undeniable that there will be far more social work jobs in the coming years.

Which is Right for You – Social Work or Case Management?

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between social work and case management, your task is to figure out which of these fields best suits your interests and aptitudes.

The best way to do that is to take your time, do thorough research, and if possible, speak to a social worker and a case manager to get more insights about their job. Consult with your academic advisor, too – they might be able to arrange a meeting with a professor of social work or case management who can more thoroughly explain what to expect in college.

As you plan your future, you can’t have too much information. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to chart the appropriate path.

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