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 how to become a licensed clinical social worker in the state. This guide emphasizes master’s in social work programs since an advanced social work degree is needed to compete for the best social work jobs in California. Most advanced clinical social work jobs in the state, for example, require an MSW and an LCSW.In this guide
- MSW programs
- How to become a social worker
- License requirements
- Social work jobs
- Social work salary
- Job outlook
- School listings
- Expert advice
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Featured Online MSW Programs
|School Name||Program||More Info|
|University of Southern California (USC)||Accredited Online MSW Program from USC||website|
|University of Denver||DU’s Online MSW—No GRE Required||website|
|University of Montana||Master of Social Work Online||website|
|Baylor University||Baylor's Online MSW—Now Accepting Applications||website|
|Syracuse University||Online MSW Program—CSWE Accredited||website|
|Simmons University||Earn a Clinically Focused MSW Online||website|
Social work in California
California is the most populated state in the country with 39 million residents. Los Angeles, which has approximately 3.85 million residents, is the nation’s second most populated city. California has many other highly populated global urban centers as well including San Francisco and San Diego. Given the state’s sheer size, large and diverse population, and complex economy there are numerous social work opportunities in the Golden State.
The population of California is ethnically and socially diverse. According to the Census Bureau, this is how the population of California self-identifies:
- 35.2 percent is non-Hispanic White
- 40.2 percent is Hispanic/Latino
- 5.9 percent is Black/African American
- 15.3 percent is Asian
- 4. percent is multiracial
- 2.2 percent is American Indian, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, or Pacific Islander
California has the largest immigrant population (11 million) of any state in the nation. Most California immigrants have a Latin American or Asian background with most originating from Mexico, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and India. Because of California’s rich diversity, there are many immigration social work opportunities in the state.
With a statewide poverty rate of 12.3 percent, there also are many opportunities for social workers to work in low-income communities to empower and serve those struggling against the odds of poverty, in rural and urban areas. Furthermore, 6.8 percent of Californians under the age of 65 have a disability. Social workers interested in working with persons with disabilities, diverse communities, and economically struggling Californians will encounter many opportunities to serve.
California has an abundance of opportunities for entry level and advanced practice social workers. Social workers in California work across a number of subfields including in private psychotherapeutic practice, community social work, school social work, child welfare, immigration social work, medical social work, social work with veterans, and environmental social work. The following statistics demonstrate the continuing need for social workers to serve specific client communities in California:
- There are roughly 60,000 kids under the age of 18 who are part of California’s foster care system. Social workers trained in the fields of children and family social work, or in child welfare work may provide case management, protective services, referrals for families 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 110 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 in 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 7.5 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 41 active military bases (again, more than any other state). Over 150,000 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 experienced by service members, veterans, and their families.
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). Most advanced practice clinical social work positions, and those with higher salaries, require licensure as well.
California has the most accredited MSW programs of any state in the nation, with a total of 27 programs. CSWE also accredits 17 bachelors of social work programs in California. The Council on Social Work Education provides a convenient, searchable database of accredited online and on-campus MSW programs. Attending an accredited program is required for social work licensure in California. Accreditation ensures the state’s licensing body that an MSW program’s coursework is up-to-date with current social work practices and concepts.
Master in social work (MSW) programs vary by specializations offered, modes of course delivery, certificate programs offered, course scheduling options, dual degree programs, and fieldwork opportunities. According to CSWE, 21 social work certificate programs are offered by California based MSW programs that allow students to advance their knowledge and practice in specialized areas, such as gerontology or school social.
Furthermore, there are 20 dual degree programs that allow students to concurrently earn an MSW and a master’s in public health, a law degree, and many other graduate degrees. Students can find MSW programs at both state and private universities.
All accredited MSW programs incorporate coursework and fieldwork, providing students with the experience they need to begin a career in clinical social work or other subfields of social worksuch as research or advocacy. MSW fieldwork experience provides future social workers with the hands-on experience they need to become clinicians, advocates, and managers.
All accredited MSW programs in California require foundational coursework in the areas of generalist practice, research, social policy, and human behavior. These courses include an overview of social work ethics, introductions to assessment, treatment, and case management, and instruction on writing for clinical settings.
Specialized coursework allows students to specialize in a particular social work area such as military social work, children and family social work, healthcare social work, social policy, research or leadership and management. 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 effective evidence based practice.
MSW programs require students to complete a designated number of fieldwork hours under the supervision of an LCSW. Fieldwork placements are provided in a variety of settings including community mental health organizations, child welfare agencies, private therapeutic practices, schools, and community organizations. Approximately 20 hours of fieldwork are completed, per week, at the MSW level.
Social workers who earn an MSW and licensure will meet the clinical requirements for many job opportunities in the social work field in California. 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.
There are some flexible programs as well that allow students to complete their degree in less than two years or more than two years.
For example, USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers an accelerated twelve month program for those already working in a closely related field. The course load for this option is very heavy. The school also offers a hybrid 28-month program for working adults that includes some online coursework and requires only two evenings a week on campus. The course load for this program is lighter.
Advanced standing MSW programs in California
There are eighteen accredited social work programs in California that offer an advanced standing track for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). These programs are a good fit for students who have an academic and professional background in social work but want to become advanced practitioners. With the MSW they will be able to work in a clinical setting, specialize in a subfield of social work if interested, and/or become a licensed clinical social worker.
Online MSW programs in California
Twelve accredited schools of social work located in California, including USC and Cal State, offer fully online MSW programs.
There are many reasons to choose an online MSW program. Course schedules can be designed around other life and professional commitments and obligations. Some online social work degree programs have different time frames for degree completion, which means they can be taken part-time and/or year-round. Furthermore students can save money by not commuting to a physical campus.
Professors who teach on campus typically will also teach online, and therefore there is no reason to worry an online program will have less experienced professors and instructors. Furthermore, online MSW programs are just as rigorous, if not more rigorous, than campus-based programs. They are also equally respected by employers if a student has completed their degree at an accredited school.
Online students typically do not have to spend any time on campus, though some programs may have a residency option or requirement where students spend a few days on campus each semester. Most online students will never need to travel to campus, although they may want to visit for networking, training, or other events that could benefit their careers.
Online MSW program students can fulfill their fieldwork hours at a local agency in the community where they live, whether in California or another state, provided the placement has been approved by the school and there is an LCSW available to provide supervision to clinical students.
Online students must be proactive in getting the support they need to successfully complete their degree. This may mean being a bit more assertive than on campus students in getting resources from the library, writing centers, tutoring, career guidance, and other supports.
Online students can build supportive communities of peers, but they will need to make an effort to get to know other students through online networking events, class projects, online training, and other events. Online students can become close colleagues and friends and continue to network after graduation.
LEARN MORE ABOUT ONLINE MSW PROGRAMS AND CAMPUS-BASED MSW PROGRAMSI
n 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.
How to become a social worker 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.
Not all social work positions require an LCSW, but most advanced social work positions that include direct contact or one-on-one case management and the delivery of mental health services require licensure.
Social work licensure is somewhat unique in California in that the state’s licensing board, California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), 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.
The key steps to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in California are:
- Complete a master’s of social work (MSW) from a CSWE accredited program
- Register with the BBS as an associate clinical social worker (ACSW)
- Obtain 3,000 hours of supervised work experience over two years including 2,000 hours spent in clinical work in the areas of assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and counseling. One year of experience must be directly supervised, with at least 13 weeks directly supervised by an LCSW. Complete additional coursework (or specialty coursework) including satisfying the BBS California law and ethics requirement. Other classes are on child abuse assessment and reporting, human sexuality, alcoholism and chemical substance abuse dependency, spousal/partner abuse assessment and detection, interventions in aging, long term care, and elder or adult abuse, and California law and professional ethics.
- Take — and pass — the ACSW exam after completing all other licensing requirements. The exam costs $260.00 and consists of 170 multiple choice questions. If an applicant fails the exam they are eligible for a retake after 90 days.
- Submit a request to the board for an initial license by completing a form and paying the fee of $100.00.
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. These changes brought social work into alignment with other healthcare professions.
Social work license in California
Like elsewhere, there is consistent demand for social workers who work in a variety of subfields. 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 work salaries in California
The average salary for all social workers in California is $68,540 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Of course, actual social worker salaries exist along a wide spectrum. Average salaries for social workers employed in California vary by position and range from $64,940 for child, family and school social workers to $84,690 for healthcare social workers.
Key factors that affect social work salaries include:
- Education and licensure level Social workers with an MSW generally earn more than those with a BSW, and those who are licensed often earn more than those who do not have the LCSW.
- 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 $65,00 while social workers with more than ten years of experience make on average $83,000, according to the employment website, Indeed.
- Location: Social workers near major urban areas such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, or San Francisco 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. California social workers are among the highest paid in the nation. Here is a breakdown of average social work salaries in California, by specialty, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- $59,320: Marriage and family therapists
- $59,790: Substance Abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors
- $59,990: Child, family, and school social workers
- $65,020: Mental health and substance abuse social workers
- $68,450: All other social workers
- $84,690 $79,620: Healthcare social workers
Social work job outlook in California
California leads the nation in the number of social workers employed in the following sectors:
- Child, family, and school social workers (47,380)
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers (16,560)
- All other kinds of social workers (6,030)
California also has the second largest number of healthcare social workers (13,050).
There is a growing need for professionals in the relatively new subfield of environmental social work. Environmental social workers can help Californians respond to and cope with natural disasters such as fires, mudslides, or floods. They also may be involved in disaster preparedness work.
The state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) predicts that the demand for healthcare social workers will grow by 17.8 percent through 2028. The increase in healthcare social worker roles will, in part, help support the state’s aging population. California’s EDD also projects the field of mental health and substance abuse social work to grow by 14.5 through 2028. .Finally, demand for — child, family, and school social workers — is expected to grow by 5.9 percent through 2028. The mental health subfield that is expected to experience the largest job growth is marriage and family therapy which is expected to grow by 23.5 percent through 2028.
Find the latest social work career advice from people working directly in the field in California. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in social work today.
- 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 types of jobs are MSW graduates finding in California?
- Do you have advice or guidance for MSW graduates pursuing a license in California?
Social work programs in California
In this Section:
Online MSW programs