5 Steps to Becoming a Licensed Social Worker in 2024

licensed social worker with two women
licensed social worker with two women

Social workers have created meaningful change for individuals, families, and society for well over a century. As professionals who have been integral in empowering people through everything from legislative advocacy to one-on-one counseling, it’s no wonder that the demand for social workers is increasing and the social worker job outlook is overwhelmingly positive.

While entry-level social work jobs are available to individuals who are not licensed social workers, licensure is the primary path to career advancement. Employers of social workers, including many schools, healthcare facilities, and rehabilitation centers, primarily or exclusively hire licensed social workers. Leadership positions in the field require licensure as well. In addition to the direct career implications, social work licensure creates tangential benefits as well, such as accelerating the trust-earning process on a team and paving the way to community partnerships.

There are important considerations for individuals who are wondering how to become a licensed social worker. Education, fieldwork, and licensure exams all factor into the preparation for becoming a licensed social worker. Aspiring social workers who are passionate about helping people, improving systems, and contributing to communities, consider the following steps to embark on your dream career.

Social Worker Job Outlook and Expected Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that roles for social workers will grow at a rate of seven percent, which is faster than the average for all occupations, between 2022 and 2032. There are several reasons for this projected growth, including:

  • Growing cultural awareness of the importance of mental health
  • An aging population in need of support navigating the healthcare system
  • Increasing rates of courts directing drug offenders to rehabilitation programs rather than incarceration
  • Societal issues including the opioid crisis, homelessness, and unequal access to support across diverse populations

The BLS estimates that the highest level of growth in social work jobs will be among mental health and substance abuse social workers, whose roles are expected to grow by 11 percent, from 113,500 professionals in 2022 to 125,500 professionals in 2032. Ranking second in projected growth are healthcare social workers, whose roles are projected to increase from 191,400 positions in 2022 to 209,800 in 2032, which represents a growth rate of 10 percent. Child, family, and school social worker roles are expected to increase by 7 percent, while roles for all other social workers are projected to grow by 5 percent.

Read the 10 Best States to Be a Social Worker in 2024

The BLS lists a median annual salary of $55,350 for social workers as of May 2022. However, there can be quite a bit of variability in salary based on the specific role and location. For example, healthcare social workers in California earn an annual mean wage of $88,380 while child, family, and school social workers in South Dakota average around $46,710.

While the BLS does not differentiate salaries between unlicensed and licensed social workers, Payscale provides the following average annual pay as of March 2024:

  • Licensed Bachelor Social Worker (BSW): $53,496
  • Social Worker (Master of Social Work, MSW): $54,372
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): $65,759

The data makes clear that salary potential increases as social workers earn advanced degrees and pursue licensure. In the next section, consider each step that aspiring licensed social workers will need to take in order to reach their career goals.

Read about 5 High-Paying MSW Jobs

licensed social worker with mother and child

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

The road to becoming a licensed social worker includes classroom education, real-world training through internships and job placements, and licensure exams. While some requirements vary by state, there are many similarities for licensure throughout the country. Take a look at each step.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step in becoming a licensed social worker is earning a bachelor’s degree. While many social workers earn a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), that isn’t the only path available to aspiring social workers. Individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree in other fields are also able to pursue a career as a licensed social worker.

For individuals who earn a bachelor’s degree in social work, the curriculum will likely include courses such as:

  • Introduction to Social Work
  • Social Welfare Policy and Services
  • Human Behavior and Social Environment
  • Ethics and Diversity in Social Work
  • Social Work Research Methods

2. Earn a Master of Social Work Degree

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree is eligible to apply for a master of social work (MSW) degree program. An accelerated track to an MSW may be available for those with a bachelor’s degree in social work. The Online MSW Advanced Track at Keuka College, for example, is designed for students who have already earned a BSW.

An MSW degree program typically includes around 60 hours (traditional MSW) or 33 hours (advanced track MSW) of coursework. Curriculum for a master of social work degree program typically includes topics such as:

  • Social Policy Analysis
  • Clinical Social Work Practice with Individuals
  • Clinical Social Work Practice with Families
  • Assessment and Treatment and Trauma

In addition to completing coursework, MSW students participate in field placement hours. The requirement for these hours typically ranges between 900 and 1200 field placement hours. However, students in advanced standing programs may have a reduced hour requirement due to already earning a BSW, which is typically around 500 hours.

Read more on How to Become a Social Worker

Field placement provides students with an opportunity to practice social work with the guidance of an on-site supervisor. Possible sites for field placement could include (but are not limited to):

  • Schools
  • Private practices
  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Mental health centers
  • Family and youth services agencies
  • Community outreach organizations
  • Substance abuse rehabilitation facilities

In addition to providing students with hundreds of hours of social work practice, fieldwork also provides early-career social workers opportunities to build their professional network. Some social workers find post-graduation employment at their fieldwork sites as well. 

3. Complete State Requirements for LMSW Licensure

Upon graduation with an MSW degree, many aspiring LMSWs will be qualified to take their state’s licensure exam. However, some states require such individuals to complete a certain number of supervised practice hours before registering for the exam.The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) provides direct links to each state’s requirements. 

4. Pass a Licensed Master Social Work (LMSW) Exam

All states require a passed licensing exam in order to practice as a licensed master social worker. Each state has its own governing board for social work license exams. According to the ASWB, individuals who are ready to take the LMSW exam will need to:

  • Apply for a license with the board in their state or province
  • Register and pay for the exam with the ASWB
  • Schedule a testing appointment with PSI (the testing partner of ASWB) upon receipt of ASWB authorization to test email

Many jurisdictions allow for immediate release of unofficial testing results as soon as the test-taker completes the exam. Official exam results are typically available within two weeks of the test date. 

5. Maintain Social Work Licensure 

Once social workers earn their LMSW, they must continue to demonstrate competence through completion of continuing education courses. Each state’s board sets the required number of course hours for social workers to maintain their licenses. The ASWB provides this information here

licensed social worker with older woman

Become a Licensed Social Worker

Do you want to make a difference in people’s lives every day? Are you passionate about pursuing the well-being of others in the healthcare space, schools, or rehabilitation centers? Do you want to work with both individuals and groups? If so, a career as a licensed master social worker could be the right path for you. Whether you have a BSW or a bachelor’s degree in a different field, the Online Master of Social Work at Keuka College can help you take the right next step that brings you closer to achieving your career goals.

Keuka College’s Online Master of Social Work equips current social workers and career-changing students for careers as licensed social workers. The virtual coursework builds advanced skills while providing flexibility for students in a wide variety of life stages. The program offers two tracks:

  • The Traditional MSW track equips students with bachelor’s degrees in fields other than social work. A three-year program, this track requires 60 credit hours of coursework and 900 field placement hours. 
  • The Advanced MSW track is designed for students who have a bachelor of social work degree. This track features 33 credits of coursework and 500 field placement hours.

Keuka College’s online MSW program is CSWE accredited and clinically focused, making it an ideal choice for students who want to practice as licensed social workers. Students note that the expert faculty, field placement services, and emphasis on addressing mental health needs are highlights of the program.

Learn more about Keuka College’s online master of social work program.