by Mary Jo Monahan, MSW, LCSW
To celebrate the theme of Social Work Month, “Forging Solutions Out of Challenges,” I am delighted to focus on the challenges and the benefits of becoming a licensed social worker. Over the past three years as CEO of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), I have attended multiple meetings with social work educators, students, practitioners, and other association leaders, during which I mostly hear about the challenges of licensure. In this article, I would like to offer solutions to some of those challenges and focus on the benefits of licensure and regulation for the public, for the profession, and for the practitioner.
It takes discipline, social work knowledge, and tenacity to become licensed. Social work students approach their education seriously and devote time, focused attention, and creativity to their learning. Social workers dedicate more time, emerging expertise, care, and compassion to accumulate supervised experience as students and as practitioners. When preparing to take the high-stakes licensure examinations, students and social workers will find that combining a similar mixture of serious devotion, attention, and confidence with their knowledge will help them be successful in achieving licensure and start them on the path to practice prudently, abiding by our shared social work values.
With professional regulation, the aspirational goals of the social work Code of Ethics become a legal obligation with enforceable accountability for public protection. Because social justice is one of our most important values, licensed social workers hold themselves to a high standard of safe, competent, and ethical practice. They also embrace the lifelong responsibility to “Do No Harm.” This in turn protects the public—the primary mission of regulatory boards throughout the United States and Canada—and is the first benefit of licensure.
The second benefit of licensure, a profession protected in title and scope of practice, is achieved through legislation. Legislatures, through licensing laws, declare that social work is a professional practice that affects the public health, safety, and welfare and is subject to regulation and control in the public interest. Most licensure laws protect both the title of “social worker” and the practice of “social work” by stipulating that only qualified persons are permitted to engage in the practice. Currently, 45 U.S. jurisdictions protect title and scope of practice. Four protect title only, and four protect practice only.
Whereas title and practice protection through regulation are major benefits for the profession, regulation poses challenges for practitioners who wish or need to relocate or hold licenses in multiple jurisdictions. Variations in licensure laws across jurisdictions and differing requirements for the type of license held are consequences of states’ rights as guaranteed by the 10th Amendment. This is also, however, a barrier to professional mobility. Here again, ASWB and its member regulatory boards are working toward a solution. Social Work Practice Mobility and License Portability—social work regulation’s own “Grand Challenge”—is a major initiative that ASWB is leading with collaboration and support from the other leadership social work organizations of CSWE, NASW, CSWA, and NABSW. ASWB’s Mobility Task Force will be developing a model for mobility over the next few years, with implementation envisioned to begin after approval by ASWB’s Delegate Assembly.
The benefit of practice mobility gained through more consistent regulation is still in the future—but now it is viewed as achievable “in our lifetime.” Moreover, there are other benefits accruing to the licensed practitioner in the present, such as the ability to request reimbursement for services from insurance companies, the potential to command higher salaries than non-licensed peers, and the opportunity for professional advancement, especially to supervisory or management positions. Particularly in health care settings, becoming licensed establishes the social worker’s credibility with other licensed professionals and increases inter-professional collaboration and trust.
As I travel, I find that the general public’s perception is that all social workers are licensed—just like nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals. Although not all BSW and MSW graduates become licensed, the reality is that currently all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands; Guam; the Northern Mariana Islands; and the ten provinces in Canada regulate the practice of social work in some manner. ASWB’s latest “count” in 2015 from our 64 members reveals that there are 485,408 licensed social workers in North America—almost half a million! That is an amazing number.
If you are licensed, be proud to count yourself among those who made the commitment to public protection, to the profession, and to social work values by demonstrating your competency to practice and becoming licensed.
Mary Jo Monahan, MSW, LCSW, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Social Work Boards.