Social Work Licensure in California

The steps to earning a social worker license vary from state to state. Fortunately, earning a social work license in California proves easier than in many other states. In fact, California does not require social workers to obtain licensure unless they hope to work in private practice without supervision. Attaining social work licensure in California requires a master's in social work from a CWSE-accredited institution, special registration as an associate of social work, several thousand hours of field work, and passing two exams.

Because California does not require licensure for supervised, non-clinical work in private practice, out-of-state social workers do not need to apply for licensure. However, those seeking licensure with an equivalent out-of-state license can anticipate needing a master's, proven experience, passing the CBBS exam, and additional required coursework.

Types of Social Work Degrees in California

Social workers pursue varying levels of both specialization and employment. The lower the degree, the more generalized the work for which the holder boasts preparedness. The higher the degree, the more specialized the employment opportunities. In many states, a bachelor's or an associate degree can segue into a non-clinical form of licensure. Alternatively, nearly every state requires a master's degree to practice at the clinical level, and doctoral social work degrees cater to those who prefer specialized research.

Bachelor's Degree in Social Work

A bachelor's degree prepares holders for general and supervised social work. Students take courses in sociology, psychology, and social work practice. Generally speaking, programs leave little room for specialization in bachelor's-level coursework. Students should, however, anticipate supervised field work as part of the degree -- even if they choose to get an online bachelor's degree in social work. Graduates of a bachelor's program in social work find employment as assistants or aids who work under the supervision of a social worker who holds licensure.

Master's in Social Work

A master's in social work allows for greater specialization and serves as a prerequisite for clinical social work licensure in many states. Schools typically divide the degree into two halves: one dedicated to core topics and the other for accommodating the student's area of interest. Holders boast preparedness for clinical work and the requisite supervised field experience needed for state licensure. For prospective social workers looking for employment in a medical, family care, or school setting, an online master's in social work could serve as an affordable way to jumpstart a career.

Doctorate Degree in Social Work

Schools such as the University of Southern California make doctoral degrees in social work available to social workers interested in policy and research. While a DSW caters to students interested in social policy, a Ph.D. caters to students interested in research and post-secondary teaching. These degrees typically take three or more years to complete, but schools often attach fellowships or substantial scholarships to financial aid packages.

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker in California

California requires only one form of social work license: the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). While other states offer non-clinical forms of licensure to both bachelor's and associate holders, California does not. They only offer the more advanced clinical license. Out-of-state applicants hoping to hold the LCSW in California will need to complete an 18-hour ethics course. The lack of distinction between an independent clinical licensure and regular clinical licensure may serve as another source of relief. However, this means that those with a lower-level form of licensure entering the state need to consider the requirements for earning the LCSW in California.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

  1. Master's Degree and Associate Clinical Social Worker: Prospective LCSW holders first need to earn a master's degree in social work from a CWSE-accredited institution and then register as an Associate Clinical Social Worker. This designation costs $75 and typically requires six years to complete before earning the LCSW license.
  2. Necessary Hours of Field Work: Prospective licensed clinical social workers must meet specific instructions, including the completion of 3,200 hours of supervised field work -- with 52 weeks focused on individualized instruction.
  3. Additional Coursework: Applicants must take specific courses, including child abuse assessment and reporting, human sexuality, and elder or dependent adult abuse prevention. Depending on their master's degree coursework, the applicant may not need to complete much, if any, coursework.
  4. California Laws and Ethics Exam and Apply: The applicant must take and pass the California Board of Behavioral Science's exam on law and ethics. After passing, the applicant must apply for licensure and pay a non-refundable fee of $200.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Licensed Social Worker in California?

It will take a prospective licensed social worker four years to complete a bachelor's degree and two years to complete a master's. Afterward, it will take 104 weeks or more to achieve clinical social work licensure in California. The time investment ultimately depends on what stage the learner begins at. Registered ASWs may take six years to accrue the necessary verified experience to apply for licensure. The process may take less time for those with previous undergraduate credit.

Out of State Licensing Reciprocity in California

The requirements for out-of-state applicants include a master's degree from a social work program accredited by the CWSE and 3,200 hours (104 weeks) of experience. Out-of-state applicants with licensure at a similar level do not need to prove their experience on the condition that they possess four years of experience at that level. In other cases, applicants must gain supervised, logged experience in California as a registered ASW. Either way, applicants need to take California's law and ethics exam, which cost $200.

License Renewal

California requires social workers to both renew their license every two years and to accrue 36 hours of continuing education credit. Newly licensed practitioners only need to complete half the amount of continuing education as other licensed practitioners for their first renewal. Holders must complete all coursework before the renewal. Topics include HIV/AIDs, child abuse assessment and reporting, and alcoholism and substance dependency. The renewal costs $25. Additionally, practitioners can exchange work for credit; for example, they can teach a course or participate in a professional law and ethics review committee. The board also counts online coursework towards continuing education credit.

Accredited Social Work Programs in California

Several well-regarded institutions offer social work programs in California, including the University of Southern California and Loma Linda University. Earning a degree in social work in California offers many benefits. California boasts the highest number of social workers in the U.S., including child, family, and school social workers; healthcare social workers, and mental health and substance abuse social workers. The state's large population ensures that license holders will enjoy lots of job opportunity. The section below outlines several positions available to social workers throughout the state.

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree?

Social workers find employment in schools, healthcare settings, and community-related organizations. They advocate for those in need, care for them mentally and physically, and assist with administrative duties. A social worker could start out in a relatively generalized position and gradually work toward either a leadership role or toward independent practice. To do this, they would need to make sure to, at the very least, further their education from the bachelor's level to the master's level.

  • Clinical Social Worker: A clinical social worker helps clients not only with psychological counseling and therapeutic services, but advocates for them and helps them face daily stress resulting from mental or substance abuse issues. For instance, a clinical social worker may help someone get access to affordable housing.
  • School Social Worker: A school social worker supports children, parents, and educators within a school setting to ensure that students progress mentally and physically. On a typical day, a school social worker might meet with parents and students to resolve a truancy issue or offer resources to a child with learning needs.
  • Child and Family Social Worker: Child and family social workers advocate for the needs of at-risk children and youth. They may intervene when children face danger or educate families about welfare options. On a typical day, a child and family social worker may help a family access government benefits or offer counseling.
  • Medical Social Worker: A medical social worker acts as the face of the treatment plan, helping patients gain an understanding of their own treatment and coordinating plans with families and doctors. A typical day might be spent meeting and conducting interviews with new patients and offering counseling about how to implement treatment plans.
  • Social Work Supervisor: Social work supervisors help manage and lead staff at healthcare organizations and nonprofits. They direct the functions of each department and ensure that workers meet organizational goals through collaborative efforts.

Salary Expectations for Social Workers in California

The higher the level of education and licensing, the greater the earning potential. In California, the holder of a bachelor's or a master's in social work can live comfortably as a social and human service assistant at $44,090 or as a child, family, or school social worker at $55,830. A licensed healthcare social worker, however, will enjoy a much higher salary at $72,770 annually.

Average Salary for Social Workers in California

Child, Family, and School Social Workers $55,830
Healthcare Social Workers $72,770
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $47,840
Social Workers, All Other $66,300
Social and Human Service Assistants $44,090
Source: BLS

Professional Organizations for Social Workers in California

Joining a professional social work organization can give young practitioners an advantage in the job market or give experienced professionals a resume boost. These organizations offer seminars, networking opportunities, job listings, and avenues for continuing education. They also guide professionals toward becoming educators and leaders in the social work space.

  • California Society for Clinical Social Work: The CSCSW advocates for the ethical practice of social work in California. The organization offers networking opportunities and a mentorship programs for new social workers.
  • California Association of School Social Workers: The CASSW focuses on the mental, social, and emotional welfare of students within the California school network. The organization coordinates with various regional graduate programs, making it a key resource to future social workers with an interest in child, family, and school social work.
  • National Association of Social Workers- California Chapter: The California chapter of the NASW advocates for state and nationwide social justice; hosts networking opportunities; and offers resources for clinical workers, students, and beginners in the profession.
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