Each state determines its own scope of practice and licensing requirements for social workers. Most states offer different levels of social work licensure, and distinguishing Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) from other types of social workers is the most common division between different licensing levels.
When states do make such a distinction, the Licensed Social Worker (LSW) credential commonly represents the non-clinical level of licensure and will often have less stringent licensing requirements than an LCSW license. It may only require a bachelor’s degree, the passage of the ASWB’s Bachelors Exam, and demand less hours of supervised experience.
Relatively fewer requirements than the LCSW license means the scope of practice for LSWs is also typically reduced. LSWs may need to work under supervision and usually cannot diagnose or treat mental disorders. LSWs are typically bachelor’s-level generalist social workers.
Many choose to become an LSW to accrue hours of supervised experience on their way to becoming an LCSW. Others LSWs are content where they are and renew their licenses indefinitely. Becoming an LSW is a good choice regardless if you’re looking to dive into the field of social work and earn a decent salary while you’re making a positive impact on society and helping others.
Where Do LSWs Work and How Much Do They Earn?
LSWs can usually work anywhere an LCSW can work, though not in independent practice. According to the US Department of Labor in 2020, the largest percent of social workers nationwide (21.5 percent) work at individual and family service agencies. That’s followed by 13.1 percent who work with local government agencies, 11 percent who work with state government agencies, 5.7 percent who work in hospitals, 5.5 percent who work at elementary and secondary schools, and five percent who work at outpatient care centers.
The average yearly salary for social workers nationwide is $59,521, however different areas of social work offer different levels of compensation. Social workers in the healthcare field earn an average of $60,470. Social workers specializing in mental health and substance abuse earn an average of $54,540. And child, family, and school social workers made an average of $52,370 in 2020, according to the US Department of Labor.
How to Become an LSW
Once you’ve decided you want to seriously explore becoming a social worker you can complete these steps to become an LSW.
Step One – Earn a Bachelor’s Degree:
Every state that issues an LSW license sets at least a bachelor’s degree as the minimum education requirement, if not a master’s degree. This should be in social work or another closely related health field like psychology, counseling, sociology, or human services.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is one of the most widely recognized accrediting organizations by state boards of social work. Earning a degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program is the most direct way to fulfill state education requirements for licensing.
Step Two – Pass the ASWB Bachelors Exam:The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) sponsors the Bachelors Exam that you’ll need to pass to become an LSW. Depending on your state’s exam requirements, you may need to pass an even higher-level ASWB exam.
You take this exam at a testing center on a computer. It’s 170 multiple-choice questions and you’ll have four hours to complete it. The main areas of focus covered on the exam are:
- Human behavior in the environment, diversity, and development
- Social work assessments
- Social work client interventions
- Professional ethics, values, and relationships
You can find more information about this test in the Exam Candidate Handbook and the Bachelors Exam Content Outline.
Step Three – Apply for an LSW License From Your State’s Board of Social Work:You will need to fill out an LSW license application to get clearance from your state board to take your ASWB exam. Once you’ve passed the exam, met all other requirements in your state, and your application is approved, then you will receive your LSW license.
Step Four – Maintain Your LSW License:States set their own requirements for what you’ll need to do to maintain your LSW license. Most commonly these include paying a renewal fee and completing a specific number of hours of approved continuing education which notably include ethics.
Other requirements can include documenting hundreds of hours of supervised social work experience. You can often fulfill LSW continuing education requirements by obtaining additional education or becoming certified by a national professional organization.
When to Study for a Graduate Degree
While many states only require a bachelor’s degree, some require a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to become an LSW.
And even when it’s not an outright requirement for licensure, an MSW or doctoral degree in social work open up additional doors for career advancement. For example, becoming an LCSW requires at least an MSW or master’s degree in a closely related field, ideally from a CSWE-accredited program.
To move beyond the entry level, anyone who wants to pursue a long-term career in the field of social work needs to earn at least an MSW.
Social Work Practicum and Internships
State licensing requirements typically mandate a minimum amount of hours of internships and practicums, completed as part of a qualifying education program, to be eligible for licensure.
CSWE standards, which are often used for state licensing benchmark requirements, dictate that accredited bachelor’s programs will include 400 hours of field education, and that accredited master’s programs will include 900 hours of field education.
The practicum and internship experiences are great opportunities to hone real-world skills while developing professional contacts that can lead to future employment opportunities.
As an LSW you have a number of certification options you can voluntarily obtain from national organizations. While not required for state licensure, these can help to improve your level of expertise while simultaneously giving your resume an extra shine. They can also fulfill continuing education requirements for renewal depending on your state board.
The prominent National Association for Social Workers (NASW) sponsors several voluntary certifications that may be obtained by social workers with a bachelor’s degree who meet additional NASW requirements. These are:
- Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
- Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
- Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
- Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families-Social Worker (MVF-SW)
- Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)
The NASW is far from being the only national professional organization to offer voluntary certifications to social workers with a bachelor’s degree. For example, the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) offers certifications like the National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC), Nicotine Dependence Specialist (NDS), National Certified Adolescent Addictions Counselor (NCAAC), and National Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist (NCPRSS). You can fulfill the education requirement for any of these certifications with a bachelor’s degree.