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How to Become a Social Worker in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Becoming a social worker is an ideal career option for those who like to help people and who have a deep desire to better the communities around them. Social workers hold a variety of positions, including school counselors, child advocates, and substance abuse counselors, but their primary goals are to assist their clients and better their lives.

If being a social worker seems like the right career option for you, keep reading. This guide will provide more information about how to become a social worker.

How to become a social worker by state

The first step to becoming a social worker is to earn an undergraduate degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology or criminal justice. While you may be able to find a clerical position within a social service agency without a social work degree, nearly all employers require their employees to have at least a bachelor’s degree before providing any type of direct services to clients. With a bachelor’s degree, you are likely to find an array of job opportunities, such as case manager, child advocate, and substance abuse counselor.

Some jobs, however, require a licensed social worker. The most common social work licensures are

  • Licensed social worker (LSW)
  • Licensed independent social worker (LISW)
  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW)
  • Licensed master social worker (LMSW)
  • Certified school social work specialist (CSSWS)
  • Associate clinical social worker (ACSW)
  • Registered clinical social worker (RCSW)
  • Licensed specialists clinic social worker (LSCSW)
  • Certified social worker (CSW)
  • Licensed graduate social worker (LGSW)

Since social workers provide professional services, licensures are managed by each state’s regulatory board. Due to this factor, each state has its own unique set of guidelines and requirements. However, social worker licensing typically involves a combination of educational, testing, and supervision requirements.

For example, becoming a Licensed Social Worker, Licensed Independent Social Worker, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, or Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker typically requires the completion of an accredited MSW program, successful passage of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exams, and the completion of a set number of supervised, work-related hours.

The biggest differences between states when it comes to social work licensure are the type of licensures available and the number of supervised hours required. For example, some states, such as Florida and Arizona only require 1,500 and 1,600 supervised hours respectively, while states like Louisiana require 5,760 hours. Other states, such as Illinois and Maine have two levels of social worker licensure with each requiring a different set of supervised hours. Additionally, some states offer probationary licensures to social workers, which allows them to practice while earning their required supervised hours.

Below is a brief look at each state’s offering along with the number of supervised hours required.

Alabama

  • LICSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Alaska

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Arizona

  • LCSW (1,600 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Arkansas

  • Licensed certified social worker (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LSW

California

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • ACSW

Colorado

  • LCSW (3,360 supervised hours)
  • LSW

Connecticut

  • LCSW (3,00 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

Delaware

  • LCSW (3,200 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Florida

  • LCSW (1,500 supervised hours)
  • RCSW
  • CMSW

Georgia

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

Hawaii

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW
  • LBSW

Idaho

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LSW

Illinois

  • LCSW – 1 (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LCSW – 2 (2,00 supervised hours)
  • LSW – 1
  • LSW – 2 (3 years of supervision)

Indiana

  • LCSW (2 years of supervision)
  • LSW
  • LBSW

Iowa

  • LISW (2 years of supervision)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Kansas

  • LSCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Kentucky

  • LCSW (3,600 supervised hours)
  • CSW
  • LSW – 1
  • LSW – 2

Louisiana

  • LCSW (5,760 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • CSW
  • RSW

Maine

  • LCSW – 1 (3,200 supervised hours)
  • LCSW – 2 (6,400 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LSW – 1
  • LSW – 2 (3,200 supervised hours)

Maryland

  • Licensed certified social worker – Clinical (3,000 supervised hours)
  • Licensed certified social worker (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Massachusetts

  • LICSW (3,500 supervised hours)
  • Licensed certified social worker
  • LSW – 1
  • LSW – 2 (3,500 supervised hours)
  • LSW – 3
  • LSW – 4
  • LSW – 5
  • LSW – 6

Michigan

  • LMSW – Clinical (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW – Macro (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LBSW

Minnesota

  • LICSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LISW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LGSW
  • LSW

Mississippi

  • LCSW (24 months supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LSW

Missouri

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • Licensed advanced macro social worker (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Montana

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW (2,000 supervised hours)
  • LBSW (2,000 supervised hours)

Nebraska

  • CMSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW
  • LSW

New Jersey

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CSW (1,600 supervised hours)

New Mexico

  • LCSW (1,6000 supervised hours)
  • LISW (3,600 supervised hours)
  • LMSW (3,600 supervised hours)
  • LBSW

New York

  • LCSW (2,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

North Carolina

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CSWM
  • CSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CMSW

North Dakota

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Ohio

  • LISW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW

Oklahoma

  • LCSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW – administration (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

Oregon

  • LCSW (3,500 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

Pennsylvania

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW
  • LBSW

Rhode Island

  • LICSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)

South Carolina

  • LISW – AP (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LISW – CP (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW
  • CSW
  • LSW

Tennessee

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LAPW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Texas

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LBSW

Utah

  • LCSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • CSW

Vermont

  • LICSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW

Virginia

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LMSW
  • LBSW

Washington

  • LICSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LSW – associate independent clinical
  • LAPSW (3,200 supervised hours)
  • LSW

Washington, D.C.

  • LICSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LISW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LGSW
  • LSW

West Virginia

  • LICSW (4,000 supervised hours)
  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LGSW
  • LSW

Wisconsin

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • LAPSW
  • CSW

Wyoming

  • LCSW (3,000 supervised hours)
  • CSW

To learn more about social worker licensing options and requirements in your specific area reach out to your state’s regulatory board for more information. The National Associate of Social Workers is another great resource that can help to connect you to your state’s social work resources. Additionally, the college or university you are attending should also be able to provide you with more licensing information even if you plan to work in another state.

How to pick a degree and career in social work

Do you have what it takes to be a social worker? If you have already identified this as a career that you are interested in pursuing, there’s a good chance that you do have what it takes. There are, however, a few traits that nearly all successful social workers have, including:

Strong communication skills

Strong communication skills are a requirement for all social workers. You must be able to efficiently communicate not just with your clients, but with other team members and service providers. Fortunately, students will be able to strengthen these skills throughout their training.

Active listening abilities

Social workers must not only have the ability to communicate with their clients, but they also must be able to listen to them as well. In fact, active listening skills are one of the most important traits of a social worker.

High-level of empathy

Having a high level of empathy towards your clients is a must for social workers. However, you must be able to separate your personal and work life and find ways to protect your own mental health as you may be required to deal with extremely stressful and emotionally draining situations.

Acceptance

Social workers are required to see patients from backgrounds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. There is no room for prejudice or stereotyping in the work of a social worker. You must have the ability to treat every client the same or risk facing ethics violations.

Detailed-oriented

Social workers are expected to take very detailed notes and to track patients’ progress and interactions. Being detailed oriented can help you achieve this expectation

Organization

Many social workers manage dozens of clients at the same time. They must be able to stay highly organized and to keep client files orderly and up to date.

The majority of social workers begin their careers by earning an undergraduate degree in social work. Many colleges and universities require students at this level to choose a specific social work concentration. This can be an incredibly difficult decision for many social work students. 

Start by considering your overall career goals and think about where you would like to work after graduation. For example, do you want to work in a school setting, a local organization or governmental agencies, or in private social work practice? Next, think about the type of clients you would most like to work with, such as children, seniors, people in poverty, individuals struggling with substance abuse addictions, or those looking for employment assistance.

Social work specialties

Knowing your unique interests can help you narrow down your career options. It’s also important to understand all the different specialties available in the social work field. The National Association of Social Work (NASW) has identified 16 unique social work concentration areas, including:

Administration and management

These social workers often work within the administrative team of a hospital, nonprofit agency, or some other social services provider. They handle budgeting, planning, and employee-related issues and oversee the work of their team.

Advocacy and community organization

As the name suggests, these social workers serve as advocates for the less fortunate or unheard voices of the community. They tackle some of the community’s most important issues, such as racism, child abuse, and poverty.

Aging

Geriatric social workers specifically work with seniors aged 65 and older. They may work for hospitals, nursing homes, government agencies, or home health care agencies. Common duties include mental health assessments and counseling.

Child welfare

Child welfare social workers serve as advocates for children under the age of 18 years old. They often work on behalf of children who have been abused or neglected. These social workers may work for children and youth organizations, children-based charities, or healthcare facilities.

Developmental disabilities

These social workers assist clients dealing with a physical or mental disability. They work to make sure their clients’ needs are meet and that they are receiving all the benefits and services they are legally eligible to obtain.

Healthcare social worker

Healthcare social workers typically work in a hospital, nursing home, or some other healthcare facility. A medical social worker assists clients who are under the direct care of a physician and ensure they are obtaining all the recommended services.

International social work

Social workers focusing on international service often assist clients facing extreme poverty. They may work in hospitals, orphanages, or refugees’ camps or help with the development of community-based projects, such as improved healthcare or education.

Justice and corrections

These social workers are often employed to work within the prison system. They may, however, work with county probation offices, juvenile detention centers, or schools.

Mental health

Mental health social works serve clients who are struggling with some type of mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disease, or schizophrenia. When licensed, mental health social workers can assess, diagnose, and counsel mental health patients.  

Mental health – substance abuse

Abuse social workers help clients struggling with a drug or alcohol addictions. They may work directly for a substance abuse rehabilitation facility or for a hospital, youth organization, or community agency.

Occupational and employment assistance

These social workers help clients overcome a variety of obstacles in order to obtain gainful employment. They assist with the job search process as well as coordinating much-needed community resources for their clients.

Policy and planning

Rather than provide direct services, these social workers offer support to the community or employer as a whole. They are involved in the development and management of policy and planning and can serve as a public affairs specialist, research analysis, or public health manager.

Political

These activists desire to change policies and laws at the local, state, and federal levels. It is not uncommon for social workers to transition into the field of politics, where they hope to make lasting change.

Public welfare

Public welfare social workers assist clients facing some level of poverty. Their goals are to help clients obtain the services and care necessary to overcome poverty and restore their lives. These caseworkers often work as case managers for the public welfare system.  

Research

As you might expect, research social workers primarily focus on research and analysis. They rarely, if ever, work directly with the clients. However, their research is often an invaluable part of social work policy.

School counseling

Social workers specializing in school counseling typically work within the school system, either as an employee of the school or of an authorized agency. They work directly with students having behavioral, mental health, or substance abuse issues.

Job outlook for social workers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for social workers is expected to rise by 13% over the next ten years. This job growth rate is more than three times the national average. One reason for this growing demand is the record number of seniors retiring every year. Studies show that 2 million seniors are retiring every year and the COVID pandemic has pushed some into retiring even earlier than expected.

As these seniors continue to age, their need for both medical and mental health support will also rise. This fact, in turn, will create a higher demand for social workers. It’s not surprising that popular retirement states, such as Florida and California, are among those states with the highest concentration of social workers.

Below is a look at the top 10 states with the highest concentration of social workers.

  • California: 86,750
  • New York: 59,150
  • Texas: 39,620
  • Pennsylvania: 67,480
  • Florida: 67,480
  • Massachusetts: 29,330
  • Ohio: 27,400
  • Oregon: 26,080
  • Illinois: 25,350
  • Michigan: 23,760

Another factor driving up the demand for social workers is the increase in mental health awareness. As more and more communities come to recognize the benefits of early intervention, whether involving substance abuse or child abuse, the greater demand there is for social workers to manage these services.

Finally, advanced technology is making it easier for social workers to connect and manage their clients’ services, which results in improved outcomes. As these outcomes continue to improve, more and more agencies, including hospitals, nursing homes, and schools are investing in the services of social workers.

All of these factors are good news for those considering a career in social workers. While the aging population, higher demand, and advancements in technology are slowly changing the way social workers work and manage clients, one thing is certain – the need for these professionals is not expected to slow down any time soon.

Fortunately, students graduating with a degree in social work should have no trouble finding job opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the average annual salaries for social workers to be $51,760. However, actual salaries among all social workers fluctuate greatly. For example, the lowest 10% of social workers average an annual salary of $33,020 while the average annual wage for the top 10% is $85,820.

A major factor in this discrepancy in salaries is location. For comparison purposes, here’s a look at the states the paying the highest social worker salaries compared to the states that offer social workers the lowest wages.

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii: $85,740
  • Massachusetts: $85,590
  • Nevada: $82,410
  • Rhode Island: $79,720
  • Virginia: $77,060
  • Georgia: $75,410
  • South Dakota: $75,390
  • Alaska: $74,510
  • Illinois: $73,580
  • New York: $72,210

Lowest paying states

  • Montana: $44,790
  • South Carolina: $50,470
  • Arkansas: $50,590
  • Utah: $52,680
  • Florida: $52,770
  • Oregon: $55,160
  • Tennessee: $55,210
  • Ohio: $55,910
  • Mississippi: $56,080
  • Maine: $56,540

As you can see, there is a $29,200 difference between this highest-paying state and the lowest-paying state. At first glance, this may seem like a huge discrepancy, but it’s important to factor in the cost of living for each area. For example, while Hawaii offers the highest salaries, the state also has the highest housing costs in the country.

When looking for a place to work, it’s important to realize that salaries not only vary by state, but wages also vary by location within the state. Typically, social workers employed in metropolitan areas tend to make more than those living in more rural areas.  

Top paying metropolitan areas

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara: $98,810
  • Springfield, MA-CT: $89,340
  • Reno, NV: $86,860
  • Urban Honolulu, HI: $85,250
  • Boston-Cambridge-Nashua: $83,760
  • Lawton, OK: $83,560
  • New Haven, CT: $83,310
  • Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise: $83,160
  • Vallejo-Fairfield: $82,210
  • Killeen-Temple: $82,030

Social work education options

Most social work students begin their educational path by earning their undergraduate degrees from an accredited college or university. 

Undergraduate degree

There are two primary types of undergraduate degrees, including an associate and bachelor’s degree. No matter which type of program you take, it’s crucial that you choose a program that is accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). Without this CSWE accreditation, you run the risk of not being able to obtain proper licensure or certification after graduation.

Associate degree in social work

Associate degree programs in social work are typically offered by local community colleges. These programs take about 2 years to complete if attending on a full-time basis. You can expect to take a mixture of both general education and social work-specific classes.

It’s important to note that most employers prefer candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, you may be able to find an entry-level position with an associate degree.

Many students choose the associate degree path in order to save money on tuition. They start by earning an associate degree at a community college, which typically offers lower tuition costs, and then transfer to a 4-year institution to finish their bachelor’s degree. If this is your goal, you may want to consider a transfer program instead. With this type of program, your credits are guaranteed to transfer to a specific college or university.  

Bachelor degree in social work

Most social work students start their careers by earning a bachelor’s degree from a CSWE-accredited university or college. A BSW program takes an average of 4 years of full-time studies but could take longer based on your specific concentration. You can expect to take a number of general education classes, such as music theory, philosophy, and English composition as well as a variety of courses in social work, including human behavior, psychology, ethical standard, and case management.

Some schools also require every social work major to complete an internship program with a local company or agency. This supervised experience is crucial. Not only will it provide invaluable experience in the field, but it will help to ensure that you selected the right social work specialty.

Students graduating with a bachelor’s degree can often find a variety of social work career opportunities, such as a substance abuse counselor, case manager, and child advocate.

Some positions, such as a school social worker, clinical social worker, and mental health social worker require the completion of a graduate program.

Graduate degree

Students seeking licensure in social work or are pursuing higher-level careers must also complete a graduate-level course, such as a master’s or doctorate degree program.

Master’s degree in social work

Once you obtain a social work degree at the bachelor level from an accredited college or university, you can enroll in an MSW program. Most schools also require graduate students to select a specialty in social work as a concentration. Be sure to select a specialty that best matches your strengths, interests, and career goals.

A master’s degree program can take anywhere from 2 to 3 years to complete, depending on the program. Unlike the undergraduate program, your classes will focus primarily on social work education. You can expect to take high-level classes in social work, such as child development, dynamics of racism, assessment and diagnosis, and substance abuse.

In most cases, students must complete an internship as part of their MSW program. This specialized training gives students real-life social work practice. It’s important to select an internship program that closely relates to your specific social work specialty. This step will help you gain social work practice skills that you can transition into your career.

Some colleges offer an accelerated graduate program that allows you to earn both your bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work in about 5 years. This program can help you start working as a social worker faster, but it’s important to realize that this is an intensive program and will require full-time studies.

Doctorate degree in social work

Students considering a career in social work administration, clinical social work, school social work, or social work education, such as working as a college professor, may want to consider advancing their education by earning a doctorate social work degree. Doctorate degree programs vary in length but often take an additional 3 to 5 years to complete. Students will take advanced graduate classes, such as ethical decision-making and research and analysis as well as complete a thesis paper.

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