Because the social work profession is so important to so many people going through hard times, licensing requirements for social workers have long been pretty strict. After all, the social worker's competency in the field often determines whether or not they're able to help the adults and children that depend very heavily on their services. In the United States, licensure of social workers is governed by each individual state, rather than by a federal mandate. This means social workers will have to pay particular attention to local laws, regulations, and guidelines when seeking full licensure and the ability to practice in any area. Generally, a few guidelines are universal no mater the state of residence for the typical social worker.
Final or Provisional Licensure is Sometimes Available with a Bachelor's Degree
The first step to becoming a successful social worker is to pursue an undergraduate program in the field. Upon completion of this program, some states will grant a provisional license in social work that is temporary in nature. The license expires at some point in the future, unless the social worker pursues a master's degree in the field and gains significant work experience in the process. Perhaps the largest state with this provisional license program is Pennsylvania.
Other states, like Texas, actually grant social work licenses to candidates who possess either a bachelor's degree or a master's degree. Candidates must often pass an LSW test and they typically have to work under strict supervision for a probationary period after the license is granted. Though licensure is granted to those with a four-year degree, numerous professions and employers in the state do require a master's degree in social work for continuing employment and advancement.
The Master's Degree Requirement: Many States Only Accept Those with an MSW
The master's degree in social work, commonly known as the MSW, is often the only way to receive full licensure as a social worker in the United States. In those places that grant provisional licenses, social workers will need to pursue their graduate-level studies within a certain window of time in order to avoid losing their license altogether. In states that don't issue provisional licenses or licenses for bachelor's degree holders, an MSW must be earned before even an initial license can be issued.
Resource: Top 10 Online Social Work Degree Programs
Supervision and Experience are Key to Licensing Requirements for Social Workers
In addition to significant educational requirements in most states, social workers applying for licensure are often subject to strict requirements regarding on-the-job supervision and overall work experience. As an example, the state of California requires licensure candidates to have 104 hours of initial supervision and a further 3,200 of supervised work experience thereafter. Other states' requirements are similarly stringent, though exact numbers do vary between each state.
Finally, Candidates for Licensure Must Pass the LCSW Examination
In addition to degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and significant supervised work experience, social workers must take the final step of passing their state's LCSW licensure examination. This test measures how proficient the social worker is in their field, and it's an extensive examination in every state where it's offered. As with the individual requirements for licensure, states reserve the right to create their own tests and testing requirements. Those pursuing licensure should always check with their state's individual approach to licensure before assuming they'll be eligible for the exam.
Tough Standard, But for a Good Reason
Social workers have a high-stakes job that makes a real impact on people of all ages. Licensure requirements are tough, but they're designed to protect both the client and the social worker from subpar occupational skills and lackluster service. In the end, meeting a state's licensing requirements for social workers will only benefit the social worker's ability to do their job well.