Entering the Profession at this Time
The economy, working conditions, licensing, and the long haul
Message From the Executive Director
Robert Schachter, DSW, LMSW
This is an incredibly important time to be entering the social work profession. But it is not an easy time. Since this issue of the Chapter newsletter, Currents, is focusing this month on new professionals, I wanted to touch on what it means to the profession for social workers to be starting out, and identify a few things that might be helpful.
Problems not Seen Before
The deep recession that the United States and the world are in at this time will create greater needs in the communities we serve. We may find that there will be problems that we have not seen before, creating ever greater demands on society to address these needs. When I entered the profession in 1980, homelessness and AIDS were not yet identified as issues, but once they were, social workers were on the cutting edge in responding.
When we transitioned from the end of the 1990s into the 21st century, no one knew we would experience the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and enter into prolonged wars on multiple fronts, whether justified or not. From these events emerged a multitude of political, economic, social and psychological issues. Again, social workers were, and continue to be on the cutting edge in responding – from providing disaster related services to addressing the needs of returning veterans.
In addition to growing community and client needs in the months and years ahead resulting from the economic downturn, there will be challenges of just being a social worker. For instance, the organizations that employ social workers have been struggling for years to maintain their fiscal viability and to meet stringent governmental requirements for how services are delivered. In this recession, these are now greater issues than ever. All of this sets the environment for working conditions that are tough to deal with while providing the services that you were trained for.
Licensing – No Small Matter
Then there is licensing. On one level, within the context of the world’s problems and the need for highly skilled social workers, licensing may seem trivial in comparison. However, given that obtaining a license is a legal mandate, with specific requirements for both the LMSW and LCSW, this is no small matter, either for new professionals, service providers, or the overall profession. The future of the social work workforce is at stake.
There are many challenges that new social workers are facing with licensing. The first has to do with the LMSW exam. Most social workers will pass this exam, but unfortunately, some number will not. There are a range of theories as to why this is the case, and they are at best educated guesses since data has not been made available from the testing service, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).
Some of our leaders in academia have shared their sense that the issue of passing the exam is not related to having enough information and knowledge but being “test-wise”. It therefore seems to many that preparing for the exam with a test prep workshop makes sense. There is also some reason to believe that putting the test off for a year or more after graduation may lower one’s chance of passing. I also understand that practicing with sample exam questions can be very useful.
The Value of the LMSW
From the vantage point of the overall profession, a good number of social work leaders have been concerned that many new social workers are deciding to pursue the LCSW because they see it as a “higher” or better license, regardless of whether their reasons for entering the profession had to do with clinical practice, as defined in the law. Many of these leaders, including at NASW-NYC, hold the view that the LMSW is an excellent license and that social workers can have outstanding careers having the LMSW. Most importantly, LMSW practice is totally consistent with the mission of the social work profession and being on the cutting edge of service delivery, meeting the greatest challenges facing the residents of New York.
There are thousands of senior social workers today who have been doing the equivalent of LMSW social work for their entire careers and have had a great range of experience, depth of expertise, as well as career advancement and career satisfaction. From this perspective, the LCSW is seen as a specialty license that only those social workers who are going to be engaged in psychotherapy will ever need. This view also holds that unless you are totally interested in doing LCSW-related work and committed to deal with the hurdles in obtaining the LCSW, you should rest assured that the LMSW is an outstanding license to hold.
The Challenge of the LCSW
Another major challenge for new social workers is trying to qualify for the LCSW, which requires three years of post masters experience employed in a facility setting doing diagnosis, diagnosis-related treatment planning, and psychotherapy, while under appropriate supervision.
One issue related to the LCSW is that the total number of settings where one can obtain such experience is somewhat limited. Since the licensing law went into effect, the State Education Department (SED), which oversees all of the licensing laws in the State, has made a number of determinations that have narrowed the potential sites for doing LCSW practice. This was not anticipated when the licensing law first went into effect. NASW is in an on-going dialogue with SED about this.
It has also taken social work employers some time to figure out whether or not they can provide LCSW services and have their staff obtain the LCSW. In some instances, employers were not familiar with the law, while in other instances they were not able to anticipate how the State Education Department would view their setting and experience.
On the positive side, many employers have now had success in helping their staff obtain the LCSW, and we have seen this across many service delivery systems. In addition, many service providers are learning from one another about each other’s experience and what has led to staff obtaining the LCSW.
NASW is concerned that significant restrictions on where the LCSW can be obtained, as well as on the definition of what constitutes clinical practice in the law, will result in a future decline in the total number of LCSWs in the State. As an organization, we will be working with policy makers and other social work service providers to address this. This is a priority for NASW.
In the meantime, what can new professionals who want to pursue the LCSW do? This is not an easy question to answer.
We Need LCSWs
For new social workers who have decided to pursue the LCSW, there is no doubt that this is an important objective in its own right, including from the vantage point of the profession. We need social workers to become LCSWs. It is going to take determination to obtain it, while living with some degree of uncertainty on the road to qualifying. This can be dealt with by becoming very familiar with the licensing law and all of the related requirements for the LCSW. Seek out expert advice while bringing a degree of healthy skepticism to what is learned through the grapevine.
In addition, be open to employment opportunities in a variety of settings where staff have already obtained the LCSW. For example, in addition to mental health settings, social workers have obtained their LCSWs in some child welfare settings as well as in a variety of health-related settings. It’s worth checking out a broad array of areas.
It is also worth noting that SED has clarified that LMSWs seeking the LCSW may not go into their own private practice and do psychotherapy, while hiring their own supervisor. This applies to all social workers beginning February 2, 2009. LMSWs who started out in private practice prior to this date may continue through 2015 and become eligible for the LCSW.
NASW’s Support for New Professionals
NASW is engaged in heavy duty advocacy to address the challenges related to licensing. We have a lobbyist in Albany working on this, in conjunction with the New York State Chapter of NASW. And our Board of Directors is examining somewhat longer-term ways in which the licensing law can be made more compatible with the reality of actual service delivery, employment, and practice.
We employ a licensing specialist to help NASW members with issues that they have, and we offer licensing test prep workshops throughout the year. These are rated very highly, yet are low-cost compared to other options. Beyond licensing, we created the New Professionals Task Force to be a voice for new professionals and to provide support.
NASW has also been lobbying to provide debt relief from student loans. We succeeded in creating the New York State Social Worker Loan Forgiveness Program, which is now funded at $2 million. We call this “your membership dollars at work.”
The most important challenges to the profession have to do with assuring that we have a highly-skilled workforce providing services to communities in greatest need, across New York City. New social workers are the essence of this workforce. The economic downturn will not last forever, but even in good times, the communities we serve often benefit the least, if at all.
This profession and your career are for the long haul. We need to be doing everything possible together to assure we are where we need to be.
(You are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org about this article or other issues.)