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What Is a VA Social Worker? Understanding Veterans’ Needs

A veteran in a military uniform receives a hug from their young child. [View Image]

Whether arranging service member benefit payments, connecting homeless veterans with housing resources, or counseling veterans with injuries or trauma, VA social workers impact millions of veterans’ lives. Practicing in every medical and veteran center operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), their reach is exceptional. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the VA’s health care program, is the largest integrated health care network in the country.

Social Work With Veterans

VA social workers support clients with a wide range of services. Veterans’ diverse needs range from help with administrative functions to long-term clinical interventions.

Advocacy

Social workers advocate for veterans. This aspect of their role entails helping veterans navigate the bureaucracy of large governmental agencies, including the VA.

Assessments

Typically, social workers first engage with veterans through assessments, meeting with the veteran or service member and their family to get a general sense of the client’s needs. Assessments include questions about the client’s health, living situation, current support systems, military experience and specific needs. Assessments become the basis for VA health system treatment plans.

Case Management

Social workers coordinate services and provide counseling to veterans on a long-term basis in some cases. Veterans needing case management include those with complex medical problems or other conditions that require ongoing help and support.

Counseling areas include:

  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Emotional problems
  • Challenges related to marriage or child care
  • Adjustment to illness and disability
  • Coping with terminal illnesses

Case managers can also assist with issues such as commitment and guardianship, advance directives and living wills, and durable powers of attorney.

Crisis Interventions

Social workers counsel veterans through crisis situations. Trauma resulting from factors such as exposure to extreme stress and time spent in hostile environments — conditions common to combat settings — can put them at risk for harming themselves or others. After a successful intervention, the social worker shifts to addressing long-term needs.

Discharge Planning

Social workers assist veterans when they are discharged from a VA hospital. Help might include arranging for in-home care or community living, as well as conducting follow-up assessments.

Education

Social workers offer information that veterans and their families may need to manage their health. They advise clients about medical conditions, health services and strategies for living healthier and happier lives. Social workers also educate their co-workers in the VA about the programs available to clients.

High-Risk Screening

Working with high-risk veterans is a major area of emphasis for VA social workers. High-risk clients include those experiencing homelessness or chronic illness, as well as those who can no longer care for themselves.

Psychotherapy

Clinical social workers in the VA system provide individual, group and family therapy to address emotional, behavioral and mental issues.

Characteristics of Social Workers Who Work With Veterans

Social workers who assist veterans rely on the same skills and motivations that all effective social workers exhibit: compassion, a genuine desire to help others, adaptability and a willingness to learn new things. However, social workers who work with veterans must also understand the unique challenges facing their clients.

Professionals who work with veterans must assess clients in the context of their military experience. This requires them to study and understand the impact of factors such as deployment, relocation, combat and reintegration into their home community.

VA Social Worker Salary

While salaries may vary based on location, experience, and other factors, the average salary for a social worker employed at the Veterans Administration was about $70,000 as of late 2020, according to PayScale. By contrast, the salary site reported an average salary for all social workers of approximately $48,000.

The employment outlook for social workers is much better than the average for all workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of social worker jobs in the country to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, netting 90,700 positions.

VA Social Work Jobs

VA social worker positions offer opportunities in a wide variety of settings and involve performing diverse services. Consider just a few of the hundreds of social worker positions offered at the VA:

  • Outreach Social Worker. An outreach social worker for the homeless works directly with veterans in the outpatient clinic and in community settings. The role involves linking veterans with available services, with a goal of increasing residential stability and achieving psychosocial stabilization.
  • Suicide Prevention Case Manager. A suicide prevention case manager works on a team of social workers that provides comprehensive case management, clinical services and crisis intervention to individuals identified as being at high risk for suicide. Duties include educating veterans and family members about the risk factors and warning signs for suicide.
  • Home Based Primary Care Social Worker. A social worker focused on the VA’s Home Based Primary Care (HBPC) program provides direct services to adult and geriatric veterans. Duties include assessing, planning and provisioning case management services in the HBPC program, which serves veterans who have complex health care needs that cannot be effectively treated with routine clinic-based care.
  • Program Coordinator. A social work program coordinator manages and performs administrative duties for social workers in various programs. Duties include planning and implementing policies and procedures, developing goals and objectives, and monitoring and evaluating the social work staff.
  • Senior Clinical Social Worker. A senior clinical social worker provides clinical psychosocial and case management to veterans and their family members. Duties include psychological assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, particularly for complex or difficult patients.
  • Senior Substance Abuse Social Worker. A senior social worker in a substance abuse treatment program conducts assessments and delivers evidence-based psychotherapy to veterans diagnosed with substance use disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health diagnoses. Other duties include consulting with staff regarding veteran care issues.

Despite the diversity of these roles, they all share a common qualification: a master’s degree in social work from a school of social work fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Benefits of VA Social Work Jobs

  • Access to technology. The VA is a leader in telehealth, and its technology resources extend to such areas as speech recognition, virtual technologies and mobile devices.
  • Benefits. The VA offers extensive benefits, and employees are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).
  • Education support. The VA offers loan repayment and tuition assistance, and VA employees with federal student loans may be eligible for the national loan forgiveness program.
  • Flexibility. VA employees can transfer to other VA facilities with no loss of benefits, and one active, unrestricted state license allows VA employees to practice in any VA facility nationwide.
  • Opportunity. The VA has steady demand for qualified social workers, and it serves more than 1,200 health care facilities throughout the U.S. and its territories. The wide range of physical, mental and social challenges that veterans experience also provides social workers with unique opportunities for professional development.
  • Teamwork. Veterans served by the VA work with multidisciplinary care groups under the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) program. PACT brings together diverse individuals, such as primary care providers, clinical specialists, social workers, pharmacists and administrative professionals, to coordinate holistic care.
  • Work-life balance. The VA offers predictable schedules and flexible hours. Some VA facilities offer on-site child care and fitness centers.

How to Become a VA Social Worker

With more than 15,000 social workers on staff, the VA is the largest employer of social workers in the country. However, because of the unique benefits associated with VA social work, competition for positions at the agency can be significant. In addition to attaining the degrees and licenses required by the VA, social workers targeting employment at the agency should prepare for the VA’s assessment and interview methods.

Degree Requirements

Social workers must earn a master’s degree in social work (M.S.W. or M.S.S.W.) to work at the VA. For some roles, however, a doctoral degree may be preferred. Some VA social workers are also licensed master social workers (LMSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW).

VA Traineeships

The VA operates the largest clinical training program for social workers. Many social work degree programs have affiliation agreements for training and internships with VA facilities.

Preparing for a VA Position

While all the generic do’s and don’ts of interview preparation apply to VA jobs, candidates can take specific steps to prepare for a VA job interview. Because the VA is mission-focused, candidates should learn as much as they can about the Department of Veterans Affairs — its history, organization and values — before they interview in order to demonstrate their interest in the VA’s work.

Assessing Qualifications

As a federal agency, the VA uses a knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) framework to assess the qualifications of prospective employees. The KSAs required for social work roles at the VA vary by position, but general expectations are similar to other social work jobs:

  • Knowledge of community resources. Social workers must know how to make referrals to appropriate community services and governmental agencies. They must also be able to coordinate those services for clients.
  • Skill in psychosocial assessments and treatment interventions. Social workers have the cultural competency to address the needs of diverse clients, including individuals of different races and ethnicities, socio-economic and education levels, and other diversified backgrounds.
  • Knowledge of medical and mental health diagnoses, disabilities and treatment procedures. This includes acute, chronic and traumatic illnesses and injuries, as well as common medications and medical terminology.
  • Skill in implementing treatments. Social workers’ knowledge of treatment options must encompass the needs of individuals, families and groups who are experiencing any variety of psychiatric, medical and social problems.

Performance-Based Interviewing

The VA uses performance-based interviewing (PBI) techniques, so job seekers interviewing with the VA should review PBI concepts and prepare to respond to PBI questions. To assess whether or not an applicant has the knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes necessary for a role, PBI questions elicit responses about past behavior.

Rather than asking an applicant what they would do in a specific situation, a PBI question asks the applicant to describe what they have done when faced with a particular responsibility or challenge. To do well in a VA job interview, applicants should prepare to recall and elaborate on past experiences and relate them to the questions being asked in practical terms.

For example, instead of asking an applicant how they respond to conflict, an interviewer might ask the applicant to describe an experience they’ve had involving conflict with a co-worker and explain the steps taken to achieve resolution.

Helping Individuals and Families Live Better Lives

Like all professionals called to social work practice, VA social workers are dedicated to advocating for their clients. Social workers’ primary goal of providing service — helping people in need and addressing social problems — has specific relevance in the veteran community.

Having made great sacrifices to protect and serve their country, veterans and their families deserve the benefits and services provided by the VA and its social workers.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work helps students develop the clinical skills that are essential for addressing the needs of a wide range of client populations, including veterans. VCU’s evidence-based and trauma-informed approach provides students with the tools they need to address issues ranging from mental health and substance abuse to homelessness and social assistance.

Visit VCU’s online Master of Social Work Program to learn how to become a culturally competent social work practitioner with the skills and knowledge to help others live happier, healthier lives.

Virginia Commonwealth University
School of Social Work
Academic Learning Commons
1000 Floyd Avenue, Third Floor
Box 842027
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2027
E-Mail: onlinemsw@vcu.edu
Virginia Commonwealth University
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Last Updated: April 5, 2021
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