March is Social Work Month, and the National Association of Social Workers’ theme for Social Work Month 2024 is “empowering social workers.” Thomas Benjamin, senior project coordinator and member of the Inclusion, Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, and Advancement (IIDEA) Committee at Rutgers University School of Social Work, spoke with Rutgers University Associate Professor of Social Work Dr. Joy Jeounghee Kim about her research on social work licensure, earnings, and gender disparity within the social work profession. September 2023, Dr. Kim published “Social Work Licensure: Earnings Premium and Gender Disparity” in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, which was co-authored by Michael Myungkook Joo, a Rutgers University associate professor of social work and IIDEA committee member.

This is a transcript of a Feb. 27 interview with Dr. Joy Jeounghee Kim by Thomas Benjamin.

Hi, I’m Thomas Benjamin from the Inclusion, Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, and Advancement Committee at Rutgers University School of Social Work. March is Social Work Month. And we are recognizing key people who have contributed to empowering social workers. I am joined today by Dr. Joy Kim, associate professor of social work at Rutgers University School of Social Work.

Hi, Dr. Kim. Could you share a bit about yourself and your role as a researcher? 

Hi, how are you? I appreciate being invited to have a conversation with you about my work and research in social work and the social work profession. So, my name is Joy Kim, again, and I am an associate professor at the School of Social Work. I do research in the area of labor standards violations — like violation of minimum wage and overtime pay rules (the federal level rules). And, at the same time, I study occupational licensing and regulations, direct care and social service occupations, and the job quality in the professions and occupations. I’m primarily interested in labor market issues targeting low-wage, and moderate-wage workers. That’s my research area. Recently, I’ve been focusing a lot on social work regulations and the social work workforce. The publication that you are interested in talking about is part of the research program that I developed to look at the impact of occupational licensing on social workers’ earnings.

What intrigues you the most about your research concentrations on a personal level?

On a personal level, I’ve always been interested in delving into an area that’s directly related to the economic well-being of low-income, low-wage working populations. So, I started my career as a researcher who is interested in the impact of means-tested welfare programs and doing policy analysis to understand the effect of public assistance programs on the well-being of low-income workers and families. After some years, I realized the root cause of economic disparity, inequality, and poverty is in the labor market. I was interested in questions like why are some jobs paying more than others? Why do some people get to have a better-paying job while others don’t have access to that? And, also, why are some holding a job in well-protected industries and occupations while others don’t have access to those? The labor market is quite segregated. So, I found a way to study topics in the labor market inequalities. I am continuously interested in this topic, and I am still fascinated by how much inequality exists in the labor market. That’s what I’m passionate about.

Great. And, so, you talk about labor markets and occupations, and one of those occupations of the very many is social work. Social work is a field, and it’s a field that is occupied by those who would be considered social workers. What are some of the societal functions of social work, and how does your research address some of these?

I think the most fundamental function of the social worker, in general in our society, is that social workers are the behavioral healthcare workforce. That’s how the Department of Labor and HRSA [Health Resources and Services Administration] and federal government agencies define social work. Social workers are the behavioral healthcare workforce that provides mental health, emotional health, and substance abuse-related assistance to the general population. So, just like a family therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, and counselor — a bunch of others — we are part of the behavioral healthcare workforce. And our societal function, I think, is in that role. I think my interest in job quality and workforce issues is related to our profession being part of the behavioral healthcare workforce. Again, whether you work as a family and children’s social worker, healthcare social worker, or behavioral social worker, I think we are all considered to be part of the social work profession. If you look at the most recent CSWE and NASW workforce study, most social work graduates (60 to 70 percent of our graduates) — even though they are not part of the healthcare industry — end up providing mental health-related services to the population of their clients. So, I think the primary function of our profession is to provide behavioral health assistance to the general public.

And is there perhaps a unique nature of the social work occupation?

I think we are unique in terms of our commitment to DEI and serving those who are most vulnerable in society. So, I think our commitment to DEI is what makes us unique. We are at the same time part of the social service occupation and industry. So, jobs in social service occupations are paid through and by public money — public money that’s not generous, usually capped by government budgets and very scrutinized a lot of times. The reason why we are paid what we are paid and told what we can and cannot do has a lot to do with our profession being in the social service industry, especially in the public and not-for-profit sectors of the industry. The unique nature of our occupation is related to our commitment to DEI and serving those who are underserved and underprivileged as well as working in the social service industry. 

March 2024 is Social Work Month, and the National Association of Social Workers theme this year for Social Work Month is “empowering social workers.” One key highlight is that, nationally, social work is one of the fastest-growing professions. However, there’s concern about improving pay for social workers, especially given how critical their roles are in improving human well-being. And, as you mentioned, you recently published a 2023 study in the Journal of the Society for Social Work in Research. And your article is entitled “Social Work Licensure: Earnings Premium and Gender Disparity.” Your study examined if licensure for social workers was associated with earnings premiums. Could you give us a little background on the study?

Most of us are aware of the fact that social work is a licensed profession. That means, for anyone to enter the social work profession and be called a professional social worker, one has to go through licensing, especially at the clinical level. When an occupation is licensed, it’s usually called a profession; one has to go through a rigid educational curriculum, be granted licensure to be allowed to work in the profession, and call themselves a professional social worker (or clinical social worker). One of the most important reasons why licensure exists is to ensure public safety so that the profession can serve the public ethically, competently and safely. But another important part of why licensure exists is that it boosts the skill and knowledge development of a workforce. Licensure also provides earnings and employment benefits. Those who are certified to be competent are more likely to get employed or employed in a better position, have better career opportunities and eventually have better earnings. So, numerous studies of licensed professions found that licensed workers earned more than non-licensed workers within the same professions. We call it earnings premium — a gain in earnings because of licensure.

Unfortunately, nobody in our profession studied if licensure in our profession has any earnings premium. So, I became interested in that topic. Luckily Census data called Current Population Survey data started collecting certification and licensure information around 2016 and 2017, and I took advantage of the data to empirically test if licensed social workers earn more than non-licensed social workers when they are in similar situations — if their ages are controlled along with their gender, industry, regions, including other factors that may also influence a person’s earning. So, the research question was, if we control things that affect earnings, what’s the net impact of having licensure on somebody’s earnings? I did the statistical analyses and found that social workers who are licensed, on average, earn about 10 percent more than social workers who are not licensed. So, it’s quite a significant earnings gain related to licensure. It is also very compatible with what other professions found about the positive impact of licensure.

And if there is a dollar amount for that premium, an exact dollar amount, about how much more annually could a licensed social worker expect to earn?

It’s difficult to put a dollar amount to it — I think. But when I analyzed the data, if I recall it right, the data was from 2015 to 2019. So, in the inflation-adjusted amount at that time (in 2019 dollars), the earnings gain was approximately $5,000 a year. If you think that every social worker’s annual earning is about $50,000, it can be translated into 10 percent of $50,000, which should be around $5,000. It’s a statistically significant and meaningful increase. I think it’s difficult to put the money value in it because people in different geographic locations, different job functions and different industries have different levels of earnings. But, on average, it was a 10 percent gain. 

Even in 2019 value, I saw some social workers in some industries are getting paid $70,000 and some others $40,000. There is quite a lot of variation within the social work workforce about how much they earn annually. That is why I’d rather not want to convert the 10 percent into a money value because the monetary value is very contextual. A 10 percent gain on average — just to be very simple and easy.

And I think you already touched on at least some of them. Are there some other factors that a social worker or budding social worker may want to consider other than licensure that may also impact their earnings?

Oh, yeah, something that I found quite interesting is that, within the social work occupation, the amount of salary varies depending on the industry in which they work. Industry means whether or not they work in the healthcare industry or hospital settings or whether or not they work in government or not-for-profit agencies. Again, depending on what industry they work in, and who their employers are, their annual earnings can vary substantially. 

Everyone knows that master’s level social workers are paid far more than bachelor’s level social workers. So, the variation in earnings by education is given. Also, everyone understands that managerial-level jobs may pay more than non-managerial jobs. So, again, all these variations are commonsensical. 

But I think what most students may not be well aware of is the fact that there’s quite a lot of variation in earning and benefits by the industry that you go into. I think the best-paying industry within social work occupations, nationally, might be healthcare, especially in the hospital setting. Social workers who work in the hospital setting and are also licensed might have a better chance to have some decent earnings than those in other industries. Industries that are largely occupied by bachelor’s level social workers, maybe family and children’s industries, are always the lowest paid. 

There’s data behind these earnings statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, on its website, publishes very lengthy and detailed information about the variation and distribution of social workers’ annual earnings, even geographically. So, for anyone interested in understanding the best route to secure a decent-paying job in social work, I want to recommend taking a look at the BLS website. The site provides fairly detailed information about what industry pays and how much within the geographic location. It’s a very good source of information.

In your paper, you also discussed how occupational licensing can increase earnings. And you mentioned something called “closure effect.” What is this, and how does it affect the social work occupation? 

So, again, if you understand how I became interested in the labor markets, I was always very interested in knowing why some occupations pay more than others. I think it’s related to societal values. Doctors are paid far more than social workers. We take it for granted, but why? I think there’s a huge value, an ideological value, attached to it. At the same time, economically and sociologically, there’s a system that supports different levels of pay and compensation. It’s not only our ideological value but also an economic system that supports earning disparity or inequality. That’s why there are a lot of international variations in job-related earning disparity. That is, the pay gap between doctors and social workers in the United States is different from the pay gap between the two occupations in other countries. Why? Again, it has a lot to do with our societal value — what we value but, at the same time, the economic and social system. 

One of the social systems is occupational regulation and licensing. So, occupational closure is putting a legal boundary around people who are deemed qualified to enter a profession. By disallowing a group of workers who are not deemed qualified to enter a profession, society controls the supply of the workers, thereby artificially increasing their earnings. So, occupational closure is a gatekeeping. It has a lot to do with what occupations are paid more than others. We know that medical doctors, lawyers, public accountants, and nurses — most of the professions we think are well-paid — are licensed professions that enjoy this closure effect.

Your study also tested for gender disparities in earnings amongst licensed social workers. What were some of your findings?

Within the licensed social workers [group], females compared to males are paid less. I think some 85 percent of social workers nationally are females. So, social work is a female-dominated occupation. But, even within the profession and among the licensed, women are paid less than men. It’s surprising, but at the same time it’s not surprising. It may be that men who are licensed benefit more from the licensure. We do not understand the exact mechanism as to why this gender disparity exists. But I think that’s what the data showed.

And is there perhaps anything at the policy level that can be done to support equitable earnings across genders and amongst licensed social workers?

I don’t know if I can answer this question effectively. Besides finding the aggregate level of gender disparity in licensed social workers’ earnings, I couldn’t evaluate or examine any organizational-level differences to explain why we saw what we saw in the data. I think for us to have any policy or programming level ideas for intervention we have to have organizational-level data with licensed social workers to see, for example, if men, compared to women, are more likely to have managerial jobs or leadership roles and are paid more. A study like that was not possible because we did not have organizational-level, public data with information about licensed social workers and their earnings. 

I think for us to have any meaningful policy and program-level ideas and interventions, we need more research to understand how licensure affects gender differently. I’m just assuming that the effect of licensure works differently not only by gender but also by industry and even by region as certain states enforce their licensure rules far more rigorously than other states. I think a lot is going on, but we just could not study more because of a lack of data.

What can the higher education sector do to support license acquisition?

I think it’s a very important question. Social work schools and MSW programs might want to identify early on the students who might likely fail the exam. There’s a huge racial-ethnic disparity in licensing rates: African Americans’ licensing rates are far lower than white licensing rates. Hispanic, Asian, and other minoritized groups’ licensing rates are also lower than whites’. This disparity in exam pass rates is found across the many professions that I’m studying right now. I’m looking at 10 other professions to understand their licensing rates and racial disparity in licensing rates. A surprising consistency is that African Americans always have the lowest licensing rate in almost all other professions. I think it’s a pandemic problem that’s disturbing us. 

What other professions (e.g., nursing and CPA) have been doing to remedy this disparity is that they try to identify the candidates who might likely fail the licensing exam early and give a purposeful intervention before or while they prepare for graduation. The intervention should be rigorous or tailored to individuals. Because graduates’ employment and economic well-being often hinge upon whether or not they can get licensed, interventions can be critical. 

Many people take out student loans to go to graduate schools and eventually to get a job in the profession. However, entering the profession often requires licensure — licensure after many years of supervised practice at the clinical level. So, it just takes many years of training and preparation. But if programs in higher education have a way to detect early signs of being likely to fail on the exam, they can intervene, even after graduation as a post-graduation program, or monitor students so that those who need help can get help before taking the exams. 

At the same time, a lot of minoritized social workers may have difficulty finding clinical supervisors to fulfill the supervision requirements. Schools can help them identify qualified supervisors with the same ethnic background so that they can have a very smooth transition between schools, jobs, and supervised practice, so they can eventually get clinical licensure. A surprisingly high percentage of social work graduates want to get clinical licensure sometime in their careers. However, a critical hurdle is meeting the supervision requirements under qualified supervisors. Some social work candidates may need to pay out of their pocket because of difficulty in getting supervision within their employment. Again, I think schools might have a role to play in connecting their graduates to qualified supervisors with a similar background so that the transition to licensure can be eased.

So, those are some very important implications, and perhaps ones that may or may not be realized by the social work student or maybe even social work educators. So, thank you for sharing that. Besides earning licensure, once a social work student has graduated and has earned licensure, are there any other practical things that they can do to boost their earning potential?

That I don’t know because I haven’t studied it yet. But I think that when a person tries to choose a job, I believe the person needs to do thorough research to identify what sector of the industry, under what employers, and in what geographical region they are better off to get a job. Because even within moderately paid professions, there are lots of variations in annual earnings. If you know which area of the country, which sector of the industry, and which employers will pay you more for the same level of job and will give you better career opportunities, you may want to aim for those job opportunities purposefully. That’s how I would approach if I can go back to the job market. I’ll purposefully do some research to find out what will be the best route for me to get a well-paying, decent job that’s satisfying for me.

Thank you, Dr. Kim. And, again, I’m here with Dr. Joy Kim, associate professor at Rutgers University School of Social Work. We are acknowledging Social Work Month and its theme—empowering social workers—and your recently published article, “Social Work Licensure: Earnings Premium and Gender Disparity” found in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research. You have certainly given us a lot of practical and helpful insights on the things that we need to focus on, and the things we need to do to empower social workers, especially given their impact on society. 

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak with you.