Social Work Licensure: To license or not to license?

Debating Social Work licensureThe great social work licensure debate

With social work changing, it’s important to ask: As an emerging social worker, do you want a license? There may be as many different views about social work licensure as there are social workers. It’s a perennial topic of discussion and debate.

But the wider range of possibilities opening up in the profession have further complicated that debate. To make this decision for your future, you’ll need to consider these factors: what a license really means, what you want, what your future employers want, and what you value.

The true purpose of social work licensure

Social work licensure was established by states to protect their residents. Period. A license requires social work practitioners to know and adhere to a code of ethics and conduct. If someone violates these codes, the state can revoke that person’s license or take other disciplinary action.

States have very different views on how to protect their residents—so licensing requirements vary. Some states allow different levels of licenses depending on education levels, while some require continuing education; most require hours of clinical practice. The Association of Social Work Boards offers a database so you can compare state requirements.

Different practices, different answers

The Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) designation conveys a level of clinical skill. But today’s social work practice isn’t always centered on clinical work. Do you envision yourself in private practice, counseling individuals? Doing research at a university medical center? Or working with an advocacy campaign to advance a policy issue?

The dividing line is shaping up to be whether you want to pursue macro or clinical work. Macro work, such as research, political, or policy work, involves large systems and social policy change. Clinical, or micro, work involves individuals and families. That said, skills in one area enhance work in the other, and many social workers take a diverse range of courses, such as those offered at UNE.

Why LCSW as the standard?

But social work licensure tends to be based more on clinical training and experience than on macro work. As a Child Welfare Investigator, Deona Hooper, MSW, has advocated against having the LCSW become the standard for all. As she points out, licensing “does not institute transparency, accountability, program evaluation, and minimum standards of care”—all of which are arguably more important than meeting a state requirement for a certain number of hours of clinical experience.

Licensing, in this way, could even create a false sense of security among the very people social work is designed to serve. Others point out that the push for licensed social workers doesn’t help solve the shortages in the fast-growing job market.

Employers may not make fine distinctions

As you look for your next career move, you may find that job descriptions call for social work licensure—even if you believe the job could be done well without clinical experience.

Some states have title protection laws, which control whether a job with a title of “social worker” can be given to someone who isn’t licensed. Other laws protect the practice; that is, the need for a license is based on what you do. Most states have both types of laws.

However, some work settings, such as nursing homes, and state agencies may not require a license. Individual jobs and employers can sometimes offer workarounds for those currently in the process of earning a license or who have specialized knowledge but do not have a license.

Intangible benefits to licensing

Yet after considerations of the pros and cons, many decide to get licensed.

The letters are more than an alphabet soup after your name, after all. They serve as a signal of your commitment to ethical practice and the goals of the profession overall. Your license can help increase trust among colleagues and be a shortcut to claiming your place when you’re working with new or unfamiliar teams. It can help you access opportunities to give presentations, author articles, or mentor others.

It’s a fast way for those outside the profession to understand your skill level, and it shows you’re dedicated to keeping up with your profession and continually honing your skills.

But beyond this, licensing reflects values. As the CEO of the Association of Social Work Boards points out, “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.”

Common obstacles—and how to overcome them

Practical considerations such as testing, training, and time requirements can be stumbling blocks to social work licensure, but there’s support to get over these. Some states, for instance, allow you to take your licensing exam while you’re still in school, saving you time and giving you an edge. Some employers may work with you to help you get your license.

Keep one eye on the future: Plan for getting a new license for different states if you move, for instance. Plot out how you’ll meet continuing education requirements—online education or participation in professional conferences can help here.

The National Association of Social Workers and the Association of Social Work Boards both offer a wealth of information on licensing requirements and exams that can help you make your decision.

And to get clarity, you can try putting your social work skills into play: Envision the goals and the life you want, then match these to the realities of your profession, and you’ll make the right decision for you.

If you are interested in pursuing your Master’s in Social Work, or even if you’re simply interested in discussing the program, please reach out to an Enrollment Counselor at (207) 221-4143 or via email at

Or, fill out an online application now at We look forward to hearing from you!

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One response to “Social Work Licensure: To license or not to license?”

  1. I agree with your point that social work licenses are there in order to protect citizens from potential malpractice. My daughter expressed her desire to have a career in social work when she graduated high school. Aside from college education, I’m going to have to tell her to prepare for licensure exams as well.

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