Salaries, Licensing and the Commitment to a Career in Social Work
Message from the Executive Director
Right before I graduated from my masters program in social work (I went to Hunter), the dean addressed the graduating class. He was someone I admired. Beyond the knowledge, skill, values and judgment that he thought the school needed to impart to its students, he said the most important thing for us at the point of graduation was to have the capacity to “survive.” It surprised me that he said this, and it was at first a little disappointing. I then realized after reflecting on it that he was sharing a critical point.
Social work is not for the feint of heart. It is difficult work, not simply because the clients that we work with have daunting problems, but also because the organizations that we work in are often not easy places through which to render our services. They are frequently squeezed by years of budget cuts and regulatory requirements, as well as controls imposed by managed care and government contracts.
In facing this tough reality, I now connect what this dean said with something else. What it takes to be a social worker, one who will survive in this field and thrive, is a deep, raw commitment to the people we serve. It also takes conviction. This is what successful social workers have going for them, something at their inner core that allows them to keep standing despite waves of challenges washing over them. It is inspiring to recognize.
I have prefaced what I want to share about salaries and licensing by discussing survival, commitment, and conviction, because without this, there is no adequate context for dealing with the challenges.
Salaries: an Overview
There is a general belief in the profession that no one comes into social work with the expectation that they are going to make a lot of money. Nevertheless, social workers should not have to take a vow of poverty, either. They should be paid commensurate with their level of education and the contribution they make to society. Unfortunately, a business dominated society that is focused on material consumption and generally exists within a state of denial about social problems has never invested adequately in the services provided by social workers. Salary levels are tied to this reality.
The highest salaries in social work are often in administration. Many social workers who start off in direct or clinical practice eventually move into supervisory positions, some become directors of programs, and a few become executives of agencies. With baby-boomers beginning to retire, there will be many opportunities in this area. If the past is a guide to the future, most social workers will not consider the opportunities available to them here. As this happens, non-social workers will fill these openings.
Private practice has also afforded many social workers an opportunity to attain higher incomes, and in some parts of the country few social workers even remain in organizations to serve clients because of this avenue of employment. Entry into a career in private practice should be examined very carefully since the hurdles are quite high, including contending with ongoing reductions in insurance reimbursement.
Public school and hospital-based social workers lead the way in organizational settings. Entry-level school social work salaries will rise to over $50,000 next year and will top out at over $100,000 for experienced social workers. Few settings provide salary increments for years of service as do the public schools. Hospitals run second to public schools in what they pay. It is no coincidence that these are among the highest paying sectors; two of the most powerful labor unions in New York, the UFT and 1199/SEIU, represent most of the staff in these institutions.
In general, jobs in the public sector often pay higher than jobs in the non-profit sector, but the long-term trend has been for government to contract out for services to non-profit organizations. A key reason for government doing this is to reduce personnel costs and to avoid having to deal with the municipal unions. At the same time, social work jobs in the non-profit sector have often been valued for the quality of its supervision and overall services, as well as for program innovation.
NASW-NYC has joined forces with other organizations to lobby for raises in the non-profit sector, and there have been a series of successes, totaling over $150 million in new funding in the past several years. This was a significant attainment which required collaboration among hundreds of organizations. (These increases coincided with reelection years.) Given the number of employees, this amount of funding has produced salary increases that just keeps up with inflation.
At graduation all masters level social workers need to obtain the LMSW, which stands for licensed master social worker. The basic requirement is passing a nationally administered test given by the Association of Social Work Boards. For most social workers, this is the only license they will need and most employers will not require anything more.
For social workers who intend to do psychotherapy and engage in diagnostic assessments, it is now necessary to obtain the LCSW, which stands for licensed clinical social work. In order to qualify for this license, one needs to obtain the LMSW and receive three years of full-time employment doing psychotherapy and diagnostic assessments, or work part-time within a six year period. This work must also be supervised by a LCSW, a licensed psychologist or a psychiatrist. Once this experience has been obtained, a second exam in clinical social work must be passed.
Another qualification for the LCSW is having had 12 credits in clinical social work while in a masters degree program in social work. Students who think that they will pursue this license should check with their school about taking the relevant courses.
There are a number of things to consider in deciding whether to pursue the LCSW. It is a specialized area within social work and not necessary for everyone to have it. It is also not an easy credential to obtain. While many settings have been attempting to provide the relevant supervision, many do not provide it. In addition, a great many programs do not involve psychotherapy or diagnoses. They may be well run programs, offer quality supervision by a LMSW, and provide significant and meaningful career opportunities, but the requirements for the LCSW may not be relevant to these programs.
A major question facing the profession in New York today is how recent social work graduates are experiencing the requirements of the licensing law, which only went into effect in 2004 (NASW was a significant lobbyist to get licensing passed). In regard to the LMSW, there are reports of some social workers not passing the exam, and more information is needed about who they are and why this is occurring. In regard to the LCSW, there are reports of social workers having difficulty finding employment settings that offer the relevant experience.
There are also reports of social work students choosing to pursue the LCSW after graduation even though they did not come into the field to become psychotherapists. We hear at NASW-NYC that students “want to keep their options open.” Of course, in doing this, other important and viable options may be closed off.
NASW-NYC offers several workshops each year on preparing for the LMSW and LCSW exams, at reasonable rates. Also, members have access to the Chapter’s “members only” page on our website (www.naswnyc.org), which has numerous links to the licensing law, regulations, and applications.
One recommendation I would offer: set aside two hours and read the licensing law and the other relevant material about licensing. It is a bit complex but can be understood reasonably well. Watch out for inaccurate information floating around. Once you are familiar with what exists in law, it will be easier to get answers.
A second recommendation: stay focused on why you became a social worker in the first place. Commitment and conviction are probably the most important guides to planning a fulfilling career.