This guide is about how to become a social worker in California. You will find key information about obtaining a master’s in social work degree in California, and information on how to become a licensed clinical social worker in California.
CONTENTS OF THIS GUIDE
- MSW programs
- How to become a social worker
- License requirements
- Social work jobs
- Social worker salary
- Job outlook
- School Listings
- Expert advice
Social work in California
California is home to nearly 40 million people. Given the state’s sheer size as well as its diverse population and economic fabric, it should not be surprising that California employs the most social workers in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are 78,830 social workers in the state.
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Social welfare professionals in California work with all kinds of people and help treat or provide relief for a growing number of issues. Here are a few examples of social work in California:
- There are roughly 60,000 kids under the age of 18 that are part of California’s foster care system. Social workers trained in the field of children, family, and school social welfare work with youth and families in the foster care system by providing case management, connections to other social services such as healthcare and educational opportunities, and family reunification and support when possible. Many social workers working directly with youth and families in California have a master’s degree (MSW).
- There are 109 federally recognized Native American tribes in California. According to California’s Department of Social Services, California is home to the largest Native American population in the United States. Social workers providing support to Native American tribes, families, and youth find guidance in state and federal laws. Most significant is the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed by Congress as a recognition of the destructive political and economic forces faced by Native Americans. At the time, according to California’s Department of Social Services website, “Studies revealed that large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies.” Today, social workers continue to work in a wide range of capacities to keep native tribes and groups intact and support families and communities.
- California is also home to eight percent of the nation’s veterans — more than any other state in the country, according to California’s Veteran Services. Additionally, California is home to 32 active military bases (again, more than any other state). Nearly 130,000 active military members live and work in the state. Between the veteran population and active-duty military, there is a pronounced need for specially-trained clinical social workers who are well-versed in the needs and challenges faced by members of the military and their families.
These are just a few examples of how social work is practiced in California. In reality, social workers are present nearly everywhere. From California’s small towns to its big cities, social workers are called on in schools, community centers, and at all kinds of mental and emotional health facilities to help guide and support vulnerable people through trying circumstances and conditions.
Masters in social work (MSW) programs in California
Many of the clinical social work positions in California, including the jobs outlined above, require a master’s of social work (MSW). An MSW is a professional degree that requires demonstrating a high-level of hands-on fieldwork and advanced casework management skills.
In addition to the focus on practicing social work and the fieldwork components, a master’s in social work also prepares students for other aspects of the profession, such as case management and clinical supervision.
MSW programs in California vary from university to university. Each program will have different requirements and even a different number of credit hours. Despite the lack of standardized course offerings, many of the accredited MSW programs in California share a basic curriculum that includes the following:
- General social work coursework. These courses include topics such as ethics, case management, and writing for clinical settings.
- Specialized coursework. These courses allow students to specialize in a particular social work topic, such as military social work, children and family social work, healthcare social work, or leadership and management.
- Research and policy coursework. Since all social work fields are impacted by state and federal laws and regulations, understanding the policy and regulatory framework in California is an important part of social work education. Additionally, exposure to social work research is vital to continue moving the profession forward
- Electives. In addition to following the curriculum laid out by individual MSW programs, students will usually have the opportunity to pursue a few elective courses during their social work master’s degree studies.
- Fieldwork. Hands-on clinical experience is usually a key component of MSW programs. Structured fieldwork courses account for a massive percentage of most MSW programs (ranging from 25 to 50 percent, in most cases).
Social workers that complete an MSW will be able to meet the clinical requirements for employment for many of the social work jobs in California. And social workers with MSWs are also better prepared to take on leadership and management roles with organizations and institutions.
How long does an MSW take?
Most traditional campus-based MSW programs in California are designed around a four-semester, or two-academic-year, calendar.
While the number of credits required varies from school to school based on how they break down their semester hours, most programs take two years of full-time study to complete.
However, increasingly social work programs in California are offering additional options to complete MSW degrees. Some schools, like USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, offer programs for professionals already working in social work or a closely-related field.
Social work programs for professionals usually offer courses on nights and weekends so that students can maintain their current job or family commitments and still meet all of the degree requirements. And instead of completing all coursework in two years, MSW programs for professionals in California allow students to complete credits over a longer period of time.
Online MSW programs in California
A number of highly-ranked social work MSW programs also offer online courses, which can be tailored to fit other commitments and obligations. Oftentimes, online social work degree programs have different time frames for degree completion, which means they can be taken part-time and/or year-round.
In recent years the rigor of online courses and degree programs has grown to the point that in many instances online degrees can match the learning experience of more traditional in-person classrooms.
According to US News and World Report, employers are also recognizing that online degrees can equally prepare future employees for the workforce.
Considerations when deciding against online versus campus-based versus online social work degree programs:
- Fieldwork: One of the biggest components of any MSW curriculum is the fieldwork experience. So, while investigating all of the different MSW degree options, it is important to understand how the fieldwork component is organized and how the university programs handle fieldwork placements.
- Networking: A key reason to get a master’s degree or a professional degree is to grow a solid professional network of colleagues and connections. One key thing to understand is how you will foster and grow a network through online coursework.
- Support: If pursuing an online degree, be sure to find a support system that will help with the stressful or trying moments of the graduate education experience.
Advanced standing MSW in California
Advanced standing MSW programs in California are designed for students that have already completed a social work bachelor’s degree. These programs are a good fit for students that have an academic and professional background in social work, but who are looking to obtain an MSW in order to take the next career step, work in a clinical setting, or become and licensed clinical social worker in California.
Whether online or on-campus, one key factor to consider when exploring MSW degrees in California is that accreditation is important.
There are currently 26 masters of social work programs in California that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE also accredits 17 bachelors of social work programs in California.
Accreditation becomes important when applying for a social work license in California because the CSWE is the accreditation body recognized by California’s licensing body.
How to become a social worker in California
So to recap so far: There are several pathways to becoming a social worker in California.
- There are a number of accredited undergraduate social work programs in California that allow students to earn a bachelor’s in social work (BSW)
- Prospective social workers that have a relevant undergraduate degree (like psychology, behavioral science, etc.) or professional working experience can apply to the numerous accredited master of social work (MSW) programs in California
- Unlike other professional programs or schools, completing an MSW is a really important step for practicing social work in clinical settings in the state. An MSW is also a requirement to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in California
- There are several options available to students to obtain an MSW, including traditional on-campus, online, professional, and advanced standing degree programs
In addition to bachelor and master of social work degree programs, there are numerous Ph.D. in social work degree programs available in California. Typically, social work Ph.D. programs are focused more on research, management, and administration and less focused on the clinical components of social work. More information on social work Ph.D. programs in California can be found on our doctorate degree page.
Social work license in California
According to the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASWCA) there is only one kind of license available in the state — the licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW.
Social work licensure is somewhat unique in California in that the state licensing board requires specific coursework about law and ethics. For most MSW students enrolled in degree programs in the state, this requirement is part of the graduate curriculum. However, social workers moving to California from other states need to be aware of this requirement. They will have to take the required class prior to applying for a license — even if licensed in another state.
Not all social work positions require an LCSW, but frequently positions that rely on direct contact or one-on-one case management and mental health services require licensure by California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).
The key steps to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in California include:
- Complete a master’s of social work (MSW) from a CSWE accredited program
- Register with the BBS as an associate clinical social worker (ACSW)
- Gain 3,200 hours of supervised clinical social work experience over at least two years
- Complete additional coursework (or specialty coursework) including satisfying the BBS California law and ethics requirements
- Take — and pass — the ACSW exam after completing all other licensing requirements
On a historical note, California was the first state to pilot the idea of a license for clinical social workers. In 1965, the first licensing requirements were written by state officials. By the 1970s, the services provided by social workers were formally recognized by insurance companies. Those moves brought social work into alignment with other healthcare professions.
Social work jobs in California
As California’s population continues to grow, so to will its need for social workers.
One interesting facet of social work as a profession is that since social workers deal with human mental health and well-being, there will likely always be a demand for their services.
The jobs performed by social workers can not be easily automated or outsourced.
Additionally, as seen with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, social workers are considered essential service providers and their jobs will be prioritized over others in times of economic volatility.
And since social workers are employed by all kinds of institutions — from private practices to massive state and federal governments — there is a stability to the demand for well-qualified and well-trained social workers.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SOCIAL WORK JOBS, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT OUR JOBS GUIDE.
Social worker salary in California
The average salary for all social workers in California is $67,390 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Of course, actual social worker salaries exist along a wide spectrum. The range of average salaries for social worker job categories ranges from $59,990 for child, family and school social workers and $79,620 for healthcare social workers.
Key factors that affect social work salaries include:
- Education level As mentioned above, most social workers practicing direct case management have a master’s of social work degree (MSW).
- License level The only license available in California is an LCSW or licensed clinical social worker. Usually, LCSW positions are clinically-based and require at least two years of experience.
- Years of experience Like many other professional fields, social workers with more experience generally make more. The average salary for a social worker with one year of experience in California is $66,567 while the social workers with 10 years of experience make an average of $85,326, according to the employment website, Indeed.
- Location Social workers near major urban areas such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, or San Franciso report higher average salaries than social workers in California’s Central Valley or North Coast.
- Area of practice Social workers are paid differently depending on the specialty. Here is a breakdown of average wage estimates in California by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- $59,990: Child, family, and school social workers
- $79,620: Healthcare social workers
- $65,020: Mental health and substance abuse social workers
- $71,020: All other social workers
Social work job outlook in California
The state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) predicts that the demand for healthcare social workers will grow by 20 percent between 2016 and 2026. The increase in healthcare social worker roles will, in part, help support the state’s aging population.
California’s EDD also reports projected growth between 2016 and 2026 for mental health and substance abuse social workers. Like the other forms of social work mentioned, the demand for mental health and substance abuse social workers is expected to grow by 16.3 percent, which is faster than average rates of employment.
Meanwhile, the largest sector of employment for social workers in California — child, family, and school social workers — is expected to grow by 12.9 percent to 36,900 jobs by 2026, again according to California’s EDD.
It is also interesting to note that social work is not a static field, and the skills that social workers need will continue to evolve. Now, for example, social workers need to train to understand the mental health aspects of social and digital media. For more in-depth information on this topic, check out our guide about cyberbullying and related issues.
- What are the most important factors for students deciding on an MSW program in California?
- What are the challenges or opportunities for becoming a social worker in California?
- What does the future of social work look like in California?
What are the most important factors for students deciding on an MSW program in California?
I think there are several important factors to consider when applying to MSW programs, in any state. Program emphasis and concentration/track options are essential. For example, if you want a clinical experience, an advanced generalist program may not be the best fit; however if you are considering specializing in rural practice, advanced generalist would be an excellent choice. After considering program emphases, I would then look at the faculty who are teaching to see if you have similar interests to their areas of expertise; programs that require a thesis will require you to have a thesis chair and you want to ensure someone can work with you who is an expert in the area. Finally, I would consider tuition and all other projected costs. Depending on the location, housing could be expensive and add a whole additional cost to your learning you were not anticipating; but then again it may also be in an area where there are multiple job opportunities with higher pay. Overall, weighing the costs and benefits of your choices should help you consider your top choices.
What does the future of social work look like in California?
Social work will continue expanding in terms of employment opportunities and industries that are hiring MSWs. I was reading how the (newly relocated Las Vegas Raiders, formerly Oakland Raiders Football) hired a social worker to support their players and families. Social work is everywhere and the opportunities are unlimited. One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone who practices social work has the job title “social work.” It could be case manager, advocate, liaison, program evaluator, clinician, and so much more. Expand your job searches by using additional terms to seek employment. In terms of California specifically, we have so many opportunities throughout the state including working with Tribes, State Government, Non-profits, Hospitals, Schools, Animal-assisted therapies, and more! Most important is building relationships, and sometimes that begins with volunteering.
What are the most important factors for students deciding on an MSW program in California?
Students should do their research. It is imperative to go into a program that matches your ideal goals for getting your MSW. Example if you want to focus more on child welfare then you would want to consider a program that is strong in that area of focus. Additionally, if you are interested in medical social work or political social work then consider attending programs that would enhance your knowledge in those specific areas. Finally, make sure the school MSW program is CSWE accredited. You don’t want to spend money going through a program only to find out your degree is worthless.
What are the challenges or opportunities for becoming a social worker in California?
At the moment I believe social work is a growing field. Many agencies have now recognized the need for social workers to enhance consumer experiences whether in healthcare or in policing. Our profession is one of a kind. We truly concentrate on the social and environmental factors that influence a person’s life whether positive or negative. Social workers deconstruct and analyze those influential factors and work to help each individual reach their full potential in their lives. We find the strengths in the hopeless and help them restructure their broken spirits to go on to lead fulfilled lives. Therefore, I truly believe that today we need social workers in all sectors: schools, healthcare, politics, law enforcement, child welfare, mental health, community organizing, and an array of other service areas. The only challenge we have truly is a lack of social workers in California. We need more professionals in the field. So presently I see many opportunities for the social work profession and a lot less challenges. I do however see one particular challenge because I believe that all those who are recognized as social workers must hold a degree in the field either a BSW, MSW, DSW, or PhD in social work.
What does the future of social work look like in California?
I believe in the future we will have social workers in all sectors of our community and in areas that they weren’t involved in before. Everyone has social and environmental issues influencing their lives. I definitely see a future of having social workers being hired more often by organizations to provide employee counseling/mental health support, to provide psychosocial education on a variety of different topics like self-care and professional development in the workplace, and/or helping to organize and implement community quality improvement projects.
What types of jobs are MSW graduates finding in California?
Medical social work, child welfare social work, mental health social work, school social work, substance abuse social work, maternal health social work, human service social work, juvenile justice social work, geriatric social work, military social work, home Health social work, hospice social work etc.
Do you have advice or guidance for MSW graduates pursuing a license in California?
Being licensed is not a goal for everyone however some jobs in social work require it so I fully encourage becoming a licensed social worker. If you want to work in academia, research, or any other non clinical practice administrative positions it is not required but if you want to work in a hospital or clinical practice setting it will most likely be required.
Social Work Programs in California