Human Services vs. Social Work: Which Community-building Career Is Right for You?

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You want to dedicate your career to helping your community — you are a good person with an altruistic soul. While there are plenty of professions that allow you to help your community, there are two career paths that go above and beyond to help the members of your community survive and thrive: human services and social work. Often confused and conflated, human services and social work play different parts in providing for community success. Here is what you need to know about the difference between these who critical and noble careers:

What Is Human Services?

Even those within human services often struggle to define this professional field, but most explain human services broadly like this: Human services providers employ interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to meet human needs with the goal of improving quality of life and well-being for individuals and communities. Human services rarely involves direct clinical practice, though it can include services like guidance and counseling; more often, human services professionals engage in policy development, organization and outreach to ensure a community’s needs are effectively and efficiently met.

Human services specialists begin their careers in higher education, where they must pursue advanced degrees before they are qualified for work in the field. A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum required for licensure in human services, but many within the field go on to pursue a master or PhD in human services as a way of improving their knowledge, skill and credentials to boost their effectiveness in developing policies and meeting needs. Within degree programs, students will study a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, criminal justice and political science, to provide them with a well-rounded education that prepares them for the diverse demands of the field.

During their academic experience and in the first years of their career, human services professionals have opportunities to specialize in different ways. Some human services specialists may prefer to work in the mental health field, while others may enjoy working in geriatrics. Workplaces for human services workers run the gamut, from healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics to state and federal agencies as well as non-profit organizations.


Human services is a selfless career, in which you devote much of your time and energy to helping others in your community. Not only will you enjoy an atypical schedule, with flexible working hours as befits your role, but you likely will not command a sizable salary. The average annual pay for human services workers will depend on location, experience and specialty, with the highest mean income around $35,000. Fortunately, demand for human services specialists is increasing, which could indicate greater job security and higher pay in coming years.

What Is Social Work?

Far more familiar to most people, social work shares many goals with human services — particularly in improving quality of life and well-being for individuals and communities — but its practices tend to differ significantly. Social workers are primarily involved in direct practice, working one-on-one with individuals to find unique solutions to the issues causing them to suffer. Social workers are dedicated to facilitating change for the most vulnerable members of a community, which might involve locating safe and affordable housing, offering counseling services, connecting them with substance abuse recovery services, assisting them with employment and more.

Also like human services professionals, social workers tend to be exceedingly educated. There are a few entry-level social work positions that require only a bachelor’s degree, but most roles in social work require a master’s degree or above. Social work degree programs tend to be much more targeted than those dedicated to human services; students studying social work spend a majority of their program learning about the existing systems, services and policies that impact how communities function. Social work students may also enjoy courses about human behavior, which can improve their ability to interact with their clients in the field.

Social workers can specialize in providing services to different populations, such as children and families, refugees and immigrants or victims of violence, but specializations tend to occur over the course of a career as opposed to during time spent in school. Various public and private agencies have available positions for social workers, to include schools, hospitals, community development firms, legal agencies, clinics and more.

There is a consistently high demand for social workers around the country, and workloads for current social workers remain exceedingly high. Social workers tend to enjoy regular working hours, though many work overtime to accommodate the number of cases under their care. Fortunately, social workers do earn a slightly higher salary than their human services counterparts, taking home a median annual salary of about $57,000.

If you are still divided between human services and social work, you might devote time during your undergraduate studies to shadow different professionals or intern at different agencies. Then, you can stay committed to a career improving your community.