Proposed licensure changes aim to ease Michigan's social worker shortage

This entry in the Nonprofit Journal Project is part of a series of articles about how Michigan health care professionals are responding to the state's health care workforce shortage. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Mental health and social work advocates are pushing for legislative change to shift Michigan's social worker licensing process from a test-based approach to a practice-driven alternative that has proven successful in other states.

The Community Mental Health Association of Michigan (CMHA), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and deans from Michigan's graduate schools of social work are among the advocates seeking to address the shortage of licensed social work professionals and the demographic disparities in the social work workforce throughout Michigan. 

During testimony before the Michigan House Subcommittee, Dr. Bryan Victor, assistant professor at the Wayne State University School of Social Work, highlighted the lack of correlation between the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) social worker licensing exam and clinical practice. He stated, "Unfortunately, there is no evidence to indicate that the ASWB exams are able to serve their intended function of differentiating social workers who are able to practice safely and ethically from those who are not."

We recently spoke with CMHA CEO Robert Sheehan and CMHA Policy Analyst Allie McCrum about Michigan House Bill 5184, known as the Social Work Licensure Modernization Act, which proposes to modify the licensing process.

Q: What is the current process for social work licensure?

McCrum: With the current process, after you graduate with your [Master of Social Work (MSW) degree] and have done your field hours, you have six years to get your license. You have to have 4,000 supervision hours — typically, you have to pay for those supervision hours. Then you can take the ASWB licensing exam, which will determine whether or not you can get licensed. It's a really intensive process. After you get licensed, you also have to have a certain amount of continuing education hours.

For how much social work focuses on trying to be inclusive and culturally competent, creating this many barriers — from having to have an unpaid internship when you're getting your MSW to paying for supervision hours, then taking an exam that has no correlation with your success as a social worker, you're making it as difficult as possible to get into a field that is already underpaid.

Sheehan: Maine, Minnesota, New York, Illinois, Utah all have bills that remove the examination requirement for the bachelor's- and master's-level licenses but still have the requirement for clinical licenses. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Michigan all have bills that aim to remove the examination requirement from all levels. North Dakota has passed a bill that gives their licensing board the ability to suspend, waive, or create an alternative to the ASWB licensing exam. However, they are still working on implementing that.

Q: How will the proposed legislation shift the focus from a test-based approach to a practice-driven approach?

McCrum: CMHA is working with NASW and deans from graduate schools of social work in the state to restructure social work licensure and get rid of the test as a requirement to get your license. The legislation has already been proposed by State Reps. Felicia Brabec [D-Pittsfield Township] and Kimberly Edwards [D-Eastpointe]. We had a hearing on that last year. We're really working at advocating for this legislation. It's become something that a lot of students are really interested in advocating for.

Q: Paying for 4,000 supervision hours seems like it could be a barrier, especially for social work graduates from lower-income households. What additional help is available in meeting this requirement?

McCrum: I went to work at a [community mental health agency (CMH)] where I was offered discounted hours. A lot of public sector jobs, like the CMH that I'm going to work at in Ottawa County, pay for your supervision or offer to cover it for free. It's fairly common. There are some public sector jobs that cover your supervision for you. So, there are alternative routes to that financial barrier.

Q: How else is CMHA addressing the shortage of social workers in Michigan?

Sheehan: Along with the NASW and Michigan's graduate school of social work deans [from across the state], we advocated for the $5 million that was put into the Michigan [fiscal year 2025] budget for the accelerated social work degree program. So, over a dozen grad schools in Michigan offer what's called an advanced standing social worker MSW degree. You can get it in one calendar year if you have a [Bachelor of Arts (BA)] in social work. But what happens is a lot of people get their BA in social work, and they can't afford grad school, so we lose them. There are a lot of BA social workers out there. This will draw them back in with a healthy stipend, $30,000 a year. They can use it to pay for room and board. They can use it to feed their kids. They can use it for tuition — whatever it takes to get through that graduate program. Then, they have to agree to work for two years in the public system. That was a huge win. We wanted $10 million, but at $5 million, that will be 150 new MSWs a year guaranteed to work in our public system.

McCrum: At our February Behavioral Health Services Virtual Job Fair, we ended up having 40 employers and 80 candidates participate — and 178 completed interactions between employers and job seekers, which was really awesome. We're looking at doing another one in October.

Sheehan: Some of our CMH members are paying their interns a stipend, which is a great way to pull people in. And the state has a loan repayment program for social workers, mostly for those who serve kids. We helped them publicize it and design it. They got over 1,000 applications for 300 grants in two weeks, and they're going to open it up again.

McCrum: We've also partnered with the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to create a social work recruitment toolkit that has a variety of social media posts, wording for people to send out emails about positions, and encourages recruitment into social work positions from high school and college faculty.

Sheehan: A couple of years ago, a workgroup put together by the state found four or five reasons why the social work workforce is dwindling. One was that folks didn't know what social workers did. We're finding this generation really cares about the common good. They really do want to make the world a better place. And social work is a pretty cool degree to get to do that.

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at or

Photo by Roxanne Frith.
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