CHICAGO -- After a 15-year legislative battle waged against the American Medical Association, insurance companies and some mental health professionals, Wisconsin's 10,000 social workers will be licensed by the state.
Efforts to upgrade social work through licensing began nationwide 20 years ago, and Wisconsin is the last of 50 states to authorize licensing. It will take effect in April.
All states require people who want to use the legal designation "social worker" to pass a rigorous national examination and have specific academic credentials and experience. Most states also require continuing education.
Licensing for any profession elevates its credibility. In the case of social workers, it also gives them the accreditation to qualify for insurance reimbursement in 28 states.
"We were on the right side of the issue, and that's why we ultimately won after many defeats," said Eileen DeGrand Mershart, executive director of the Wisconsin Women's Council. "Licensing clarifies what a social worker does and gives long-deserved status to the field."
The Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Labor Department describes social workers as those who "help individuals and families cope with problems such as homelessness, inadequate housing, unemployment, lack of job skills, financial mismanagement, serious illness, handicaps, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, anti-social behavior and family problems."
In 1990, there were 438,000 social workers nationwide. They work for government agencies, non-profit social service agencies, religious organizations, hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies.
Employment of social workers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the end of the century. An additional 110,000 openings for social workers are expected this decade; many will replace professionals who are retiring or leaving the field.
Opportunities are expanding because Americans are aging and may require more counseling, making geriatric social workers in demand. Other expanding opportunities are in AIDS and drug counseling, mental health services and counseling for sexually abused and battered women and children.
Salaries remain low, averaging $23,000 to $36,000 in 1990, despite rigorous educational requirements. About 95 percent of accredited social workers have master's degrees.
Wisconsin's Ms. Mershart, who is based in Madison, has a master's degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in Duluth and is paid $40,000 a year. Her background is in non-profit agencies and governmental work.
pTC The Wisconsin Women's Council has an annual budget of $130,000. The council is mandated, Ms. Mershart says, to "identify and eliminate barriers to women. What I'm doing is everything I've ever taught or lived. In social work; it all comes together."
ALthough most states license only social workers with master's degrees, Wisconsin also licenses those with bachelor's degrees. Ms. Mershart has seen a surge in college enrollment by those seeking social-work degrees.
"Our schools are filled to the gills with students, and some are being turned away," the director said. "Social work is an incredibly satisfying field to go into. You can actually see changes in families and communities. You have the skills to make this world a better place -- and that's what people are looking for today."
Licensing gives "people confidence when they seek help from a social worker," said Sheldon R. Goldstein, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, a 140,000-member professional group based in Washington.
Mr. Goldstein, who worked to have licensing approved in Illinois in 1990, says "some of the other professions fought us, such as the American Medical Association and psychiatrists. It was a matter of the purse. We also fought off opposition from the Illinois Medical Society, Illinois Association of Manufacturers, Illinois Chamber of Commerce and insurance groups."