What Is a License to Practice Social Work?

Humphries, Kleiner, and Koumenta (2010) say there are three ways of requiring or establishing professional competence, among people who wish to declare themselves to be members of a profession.  The least demanding approach is professional registration, typically of a voluntary nature.   An example on this level is the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA, 2008), which

recognizes and registers horticultural therapists through a voluntary professional registration program. This is a peer review system that is intended to promote basic professional competencies. . . . To gain the HTR credential, a four-year college degree is required. Required course content in three subject areas of horticulture, human sciences and horticultural therapy must be included in the degree, or gained in addition to the degree. . . . Also required are 480 hours of an internship (field work). Internships may be paid or unpaid, but must be under the supervision of an AHTA-registered horticultural therapist.

Here, as elsewhere in the licensing world, states reserve the right to call things by whatever name they prefer.  So in Missouri, for example, it is the Division of Professional Registration (sic) that “provides administrative support to 39 professional licensing boards and commissions.”  At any rate, the concept behind professional registration is that the person who qualifies for the credential can then put it on his/her résumé, include it in his/her business advertising, and so forth.

Combining the examples, it does not appear that Missouri considers horticultural therapy a profession.  So in that case a horticultural therapist in Missouri could become a member of the profession, in the sense intended by the AHTA, without having any obligation to register with or otherwise contact the state government.  Of course, people who harm, defraud, or otherwise achieve undesirable outcomes, in the course of their professional practices, remain vulnerable to civil liability (e.g., having to reimburse and pay damages to their victims) as well as criminal prosecution (i.e., typically involving the payment of fines to the government and/or doing time in jail or prison).

The second way of seeking to guarantee professional competence, according to Humphries, Kleiner, and Koumenta (2010), involves certification.  Certification typically involves passing an exam.  Peterson (n.d.) says there is an organization, the National Organization for Competency Assurance (now known as the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE)), that maintains accreditation standards for organizations that want to certify professionals.  The relevant link refers to the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  The accredited certification programs listed there do not include any general-purpose social work credentials; their certifications seem more narrowly targeted toward such entities as the Association for Christian Alcohol and Drug Counselors, the Board for Certification of Addiction Specialists, and the California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators — to name a few among the many such organizations that may be relevant and significant in various areas of social work practice and in other fields.  Wikipedia (n.d.) says there are three general types of certification:  corporate or internal (e.g., to demonstrate that an employee has completed a mandatory inservice training), product-specific (e.g., Microsoft Certified IT Professional), and profession-wide (e.g., Certified Park and Recreation Professional).

Licensure is the third way of seeking to guarantee competence among the members of a profession, according to Humphries, Kleiner, and Koumenta (2010).  As with professional registration and certification, possession of a professional license can be desirable if not essential for advertising and jobhunting purposes.  States vary in the complete lists of professions they license, and in some ways those lists can be surprising.  As far as the states are concerned, as Davis (2009, p. 213) puts it, “Plumbing is a profession; prostitution is not” (with exceptions).  Law and medicine, he says, are always on common lists of professions; many others appear with varying frequency.

Hence, the numbers of professions also vary greatly, from one state to another.  Prizio (2007, p. 961 n. 35) cites Kleiner (2006, p. 100) for an indication that, in 2000, California ranked first, with 178 licensed professions, while Kansas came in last with just 47.  Summers (2007, p. 41), citing no authority or other specifics, but possibly counting in a more recent year, says the number of “licensed job categories” ranges from 41 in Missouri to 177 in California.  Summers (p. 43) also provides a list of “most outrageous licensing laws,” among which the reader finds hairbraider, prospector, fortune teller, and lightning rod installer.

Summers (2007, p. 42) includes “social worker” among the 33 job categories that are licensed in all 50 states.  The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) provides links to social work regulatory boards in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canadian provinces.  As noted in a previous post, states vary in their definitions, titles, and other aspects of licensed professional social work.

As a start, you can think of a license to practice social work as being like a license to practice law:  it requires getting the required degree, passing a licensure exam, and being admitted to the profession — and in the case of social work, more than law, it also requires supervised work experience.  Other posts in this Licensure category, in this blog, expand upon that summary.

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