by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
School social work, mental health social work, aging social work, medical social work, child welfare social work, military social work, macro social work. At the heart of these diverse areas of practice and expertise, we are all social workers and hold a variety of social work skills. When I review member résumés in my position at NASW-NC, I am often asked how one can portray the social work skills specific to one area of practice as transferable to another practice area. If you have spent the last five years working with children, this doesn’t mean you can’t successfully switch your area of practice to aging adults or program administration. Most of the time, being able to successfully articulate skills an open position requires is crucial to making the case for a practice move. Licensure may be a barrier, if you don’t have one. But, in general, being able to switch from one area of social work practice to another is one benefit of our profession that enables us to continue to learn and grow.
Transferable skills are skills social workers develop in one setting that they can use and build upon in another setting. The ability to identify your transferable skills allows you to explore career opportunities where you can use your personal qualities and abilities as well as your professional knowledge and competence. That can be more important than the job titles you’ve held or where you’ve worked in the past.
Let’s start by outlining the difference between hard skills and soft skills when it comes to defining your professional social work skillset on your résumé and articulating your value in an interview, job review, or to anyone who questions what a social worker does.
Transferable Soft Skills in Social Work
Soft skills are the personal qualities and interpersonal skills needed to perform a job. Soft skills for the social work profession are incredibly important. However, when considering including them on a résumé, examples are essential. I often see résumés of social workers who have a skills section and list soft skills with no supporting information, for example: Listening skills, Organized, Flexible, Teamwork, Patience, etc. To a hiring manager, these are just empty words on a page if there is no information to convey how you might actually possess these skills. When articulated appropriately, these soft skills are actually considered hard skills for the social work profession. The key is to communicate how well you use these skills that make you a good social worker, regardless of area of practice. Here are a few examples.
Listening skills. One of the core tenets of being a competent social worker is the ability to actively listen. Paying attention to, and remembering, what a client tells you and responding with appropriate questions allows you to establish trust. Good listening skills are also critical in your work with colleagues, supervisors, volunteers, and community members.
Communication. The ability to read, write, and speak clearly to convey important information is essential. But for social workers, it is crucial to be able to communicate well with a variety of individuals, including clients, team members, and supervisors. Social workers should understand and be practiced at verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as be able to write clearly and concisely to communicate objectives, goals, and scope of services.
Self-care and coping with pressure. Stress and burnout in social work are real. Being able to articulate how you manage pressure is critical. Do you actively use supervision, set boundaries, seek out professional development opportunities? Outlining a self-care plan and following that plan as a social worker is, indeed, a valuable skill.
Self-awareness. The ability to have a clear understanding of your own strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, and beliefs is necessary in social work practice. An awareness of how we come across and how our own “use of self” shapes our communication with others makes us much better social workers.
Emotional intelligence/empathy. A fundamental skill all social workers should have is the ability to recognize their own, and other people’s, emotions and respond appropriately.
Problem solving. Social workers help clients work through challenges on a daily basis. Finding solutions to your clients’ struggles and working with limited funding and resources requires adept problem-solving abilities. Articulating this as a hard skill requires specific examples and the ability to convey a conscious decision-making process.
Time management/organizational skills. Juggling a caseload, managing interns, finding time for case notes, handling crisis situations—these responsibilities require social workers to have a great deal of organization and the ability to prioritize according to the urgency of a client’s needs and the other demands encountered every day.
Acceptance/ability to respect clients’ rights to self-determination. An ethical principle from your NASW Code of Ethics is to “respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.” Social workers are mindful of individual differences and diversity. The Code also states, “Social workers promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs.” You are meeting your clients where they are and respecting their socially responsible right to self-determination.
Teamwork. Teamwork can be a crucial part of social work practice and involves cooperating with others to meet the same goal. Teamwork can be rewarding and challenging and includes providing constructive feedback, despite any personal conflict between individuals. Successful work on teams involves professional accountability, case coordination, and sometimes means involving multidisciplinary team members. I often see, “Works on multidisciplinary team,” on social workers’ résumés. Simply being a member of a team or attending a meeting is not a skill. Are you a contributing member of your team, and can you articulate that on your résumé?
Transferable Hard Skills in Social Work
Hard skills include specific knowledge and abilities that are easy to quantify. These types of skills are learned and can be defined, evaluated, and measured. Hard social work skills are often most critical to landing an interview when applying for a job through an online applicant tracking system (ATS), as the electronic gatekeepers will not even land you in a hiring manager’s hand if you don’t meet specific skills requirements and include certain keywords. Here are a few examples of skills that are, in general, transferable from one area of social work practice to another. This list is not exhaustive.
Workload/case management. Social work case management is the process of planning, seeking, advocating for, and monitoring services on behalf of a client. Employers want to know: Can you successfully manage a caseload of clients? In some instances, clients will need services for the rest of their lives, but in most cases, clients will come off your caseload. Do clients graduate from your program or services? In other words, are you an effective social worker? Social work is the “helping profession,” right? Articulating the ability to prioritize your workload and successfully graduate a client off your caseload because you “helped” your client and did your job well is much better than saying, “Provided case management.”
Interviewing skills. Being able to create a welcoming presence and establish rapport, appropriately question, paraphrase, reframe, clarify, and summarize are all solid social work skills, regardless of who your client is. Using your active listening skills and responding appropriately and compassionately are all part of interviewing your clients.
Advocacy. I review many résumés that say, “Advocate on behalf of clients.” Great! But how? Advocacy encompasses so many aspects of social work. Direct practice advocacy involves referring clients to appropriate services to ensure their needs will be met. Advocacy also includes social and political action on local, state, and national levels on behalf of your client population, and profession, to challenge social injustices.
Assessment. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen the sentence, “Provide biopsychosocial assessments,” on social workers’ résumés. Yes, this is an important skill, but for a non-social worker to understand what this means, you need to be more specific. The purpose of assessments is to gather, evaluate, record, and report multidimensional facts about your client’s situation and use social work knowledge and theory to develop a treatment plan or next steps for care. This skill is very transferable, because many social work settings require an initial client screening.
Care planning. Okay, you conducted your client assessment. Now what? You must use your critical thinking skills to define your client’s needs or risks and the actions you will take to address these needs. Communicating how you identify clients’ needs, plan their care, and regularly review and update your clients’ care plans is critical, because most direct practice caseloads require these skills.
Technology skills. Basic computer skills are essential, but let’s go beyond proficiency with Microsoft Office. Do you have experience with telehealth/video therapy software, billing and data protection software, medical and electronic records, or social media? We live in a digital age, and employers want to know if you can keep up with their ever-updating practice platforms.
Leadership and management. The ability to supervise, manage, and lead staff and programs is definitely a skill that can transfer from one setting to another. Can you define your supervisory skills? Have you hired and managed staff? Created a strategic plan for your organization? Provided licensure supervision? Give specific information about your leadership abilities, instead of simply saying, “Managed staff,” “Led a team,” or “Provided leadership.” Decision-making, planning, and delegating are all parts of leadership and should be articulated and quantified on your résumé. Informal leadership roles are also important in conveying your potential. For example, have you taken the lead on a certain area of practice, attended a conference, or done independent reading and presented information to your team? Even if you haven’t had a formal management title, this doesn’t mean you aren’t a leader.
Programmatic skills. Let’s highlight those macro skills! Volunteer management, program development/management, grant writing, presentation skills, public speaking, event planning, letter/report writing, public relations, community organizing, fundraising, coalition building, organizational development—the list goes on and on. Give solid examples of your macro skills, and relate them to the job you are seeking.
This is not a definitive list of transferable social work skills. There are dozens more that employers seeking social workers consider valuable or that an employer might not recognize as necessary until YOU effectively articulate your amazing skills! When applying for jobs outside your current area of practice, or with a different client population, the key is to not just list words but to provide the proof necessary to make a hiring manager view you as someone technically qualified for the job and proven to have the traits they are seeking. This is why tailoring your résumé and cover letter is critical to, at the very least, landing that job interview.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.