skills for care, social work education, switch to a social work career, fast track social work initiatives, frontline, step up to social work, think ahead

How to switch to a career in social work

By Luke Aldred

​It’s never too late to switch careers and the social work profession is a popular choice for those later in life. We have written about how to start your social work career, outlining the entry criteria, required qualifications, and necessary skills that social workers need to gain registration.

In December 2019, Skills for Care published a report on social work education in England. It found that students enrolling in both undergraduate and postgraduate social work courses were older than their counterparts on other courses; 33% of social work undergraduates and around 51% of postgraduates were aged 30 or above.

With this in mind, let’s look at how easy it is to switch to a career in social work.

Do I need to have any previous experience?

To become a social worker, you need to have an approved qualification, such as an undergraduate or master’s degree, before gaining professional registration. During your studies, you will work in placements allowing you to underpin your theoretical knowledge with practical training.

Whilst previous experience is not essential when you begin your study, there are clear parallels from many other job roles that could aid your work as a social worker. For example, those who have worked in childcare settings, healthcare or probation roles, housing, mental health or youth justice positions will have strong insights into what to expect.

You may also have voluntary experiences such as working with children or vulnerable groups which could be beneficial to your role. Softer skills such as the ability to speak different languages or the ability to communicate through sign language could be highly sought after and hugely beneficial to your new social work job.

What type of study is best for you?

You may need to consider how you will balance your training with any responsibilities you have, such as a young family.

Undergraduate social work courses take four years to complete, whilst postgraduate master’s qualifications can take up to two years full-time or up to six years, part-time.

Benefiting from fast track initiatives

If you’re keen to get started as soon as possible then you may wish to look at some of the available fast-track initiatives. These are dedicated training programmes which have been designed to help highly skilled applicants get into work as soon as possible. Unlike traditional postgraduate studies, these are vocational training programmes which allow you to work as you study.

The three most popular options are Frontline, Step Up to Social Work and Think Ahead.

  • Frontline offers two distinct programmes for those wishing to work in children’s services: Frontline and Firstline. It is a two-year course and participants will qualify as registered social workers at the end of their first year. The Firstline programme focuses on helping qualified social workers become outstanding leaders.

  • Step Up to Social Work is a full-time, fully funded government programme which allows you to become qualified in just 14 months. It’s an ideal initiative for those who want to train as a social worker but cannot afford to move away from paid employment.

  • Think Ahead is a two-year scheme specifically for those who wish to specialise in mental health social work.

For resources to help you prepare for a move into the social work profession, please visit our careers hub .