Defining Social Work and Human Services
The social work profession concentrates on alleviating the conditions of those in need of help or welfare. Social workers help clients build critical skills and access resources to improve their circumstances.
The field of counseling and human services, although similar, encompasses a broader range of goals, working to improve the quality of life and well-being of individuals, groups, and communities by direct clinical practice, policy development, organization communities and outreach. As a result, the field is more difficult to define. Human service workers meet a range of human needs by applying interdisciplinary knowledge and experience. Application may vary based on setting and job title.
Social workers are typically employed on a full-time basis. Although many work standard 9-to-5 hours in central offices, they often meet with clients on evenings or weekends. Others are more ambulatory, meeting clients wherever (and whenever) is most convenient for both parties.
Counseling and human services jobs generally involve full-time hours, although greater flexibility may be available for certain counseling positions. Weekend and evening work is common for substance abuse and mental health counselors especially those employed by inpatient facilities or crisis centers. Additionally, many find jobs working in state, and federal agencies as well as the healthcare sector. It is also common for counseling and human services professionals to work as counselors or caseworkers in private clinics or halfway houses while taking on management roles through nonprofit organizations.
Social workers also work similar hours but tend to be employed in organizations that require after hours and on-call services. Many also choose jobs where they work on community-based projects and initiatives, as opposed to direct counseling services.
Breadth of Work
Arguably, the greatest difference between counseling and human services and social work is the breadth of the profession. Counseling and human services graduates may pursue work in a variety of contexts. Many seek mental health or addiction counseling positions in halfway houses or other facilities.
These professionals also play an increasingly important role in the field of geriatrics, with many providing counseling services at senior centers and assisted living facilities.
Those who graduate from social work programs typically go on to secure positions as clinical social workers. Many of the positions do overlap and could be obtained by graduates in either profession. A significant subset of counseling & human services professionals work in community outreach, acting as liaisons between clients, organizations, and government entities. These employees write grants, prepare program budgets, and develop and implement information systems. Additional job opportunities for counseling & human services graduates include:
- Licensed Counselors
- Substance Use Disorder Counselors
- Marriage and Family Counselors
- Crises Relief
- Rehabilitation Counselor
- Vocational Rehabilitation
- Corrections and Justice System
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The job outlook for the next several years is promising in both human services and social work. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates an outlook of 16 percent between 2016 and 2026. By comparison, the job outlook across all industries is just 7 percent.
Outlook may vary somewhat from one specialty to the next, with health care receiving the greatest boost. Additionally, employment of social workers specializing in mental health and addiction will grow 19 percent. This boost could be attributed to the ongoing effort to keep drug offenders out of jail.
While the BLS does not maintain job outlook data for human services professionals at the graduate level, it does highlight human services assistants. This field holds the same outlook between 2016 and 2026 as social work: 16 percent. The BLS cites the rapidly increasing elderly population as the primary factor driving job growth.
Human services professionals at the graduate level may find it easier to secure employment than clinical social workers, although job opportunities are clearly strong in both fields. The job outlook for social and community managers stands at an impressive 18 percent. Mental health counseling — a popular specialty among human services students — enjoys an even stronger job outlook of 23 percent.
According to the BLS, social work positions paid a median $46,890 per year as of 2016. Wages tended to be highest for those working in hospitals and other health care facilities.
The BLS does not directly collect income information for counseling and human services employees. Ultimately, pay depends on the specialty pursued. For example: many counseling and human services graduates go on to work in mental health counseling, which, according to the BLS, pays median annual wages of $42,150.
Those graduates working in social and community management enjoy increased earning potential, with an annual median income of $64,680.
Success in both counseling and human services and social work cannot be achieved without extensive education and field experience. Although some positions are available for those with their bachelor’s degree, the vast majority of jobs require graduate-level education. Beyond that, requirements vary for board certification and clinical experience.
Both counseling and human services and social work programs emphasize field experience. Students apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in the classroom out in the real world. Field practicums and internships are core aspects of a master’s program in either subject.
Counseling, and human services professionals are not required to complete as lengthy and time-consuming field experiences as they typically enter the field immediately upon obtaining their degree and continue to work under supervision. This is a major defining difference that many students take into consideration as being a better fit for their needs. Professionals who are interested in licensure as a professional counselor or other mental health provider should contact their state’s licensing board to determine requirements based on their needs.
Social work is largely a clinical field; to secure employment, social workers must obtain not only requisite educational credentials, but also board certification. Even non-clinical social workers must achieve licensure in most states. With clinical social work, professionals must obtain extensive supervised experience, followed by a board exam.
The field placement requirements for social workers are extremely strict and often require MSW students, whether attending full- or part-time, are required to complete several years of field experience. Many programs require students to work full-time during their field experience, which must consist of at least 900 hours, making balancing life responsibilities very challenging.
Characteristics for Success
Both areas require empathy and a desire to improve circumstances for community members in need. However, certain traits tend to prompt greater performance in one discipline or the other. Social workers, for example, must maintain a clinical, research-driven outlook. This is key not only in their daily work, but also in obtaining credentials in the first place.
Human services workers in the counseling field spend much of their time interacting directly with clients. They’ll find it far easier to build strong relationships if they’re friendly and personable. Compassion is an absolute essential; many human services professionals work closely with those in the midst of mental health issues, substance abuse, or poverty. Some clients may prove demanding; professionals must demonstrate empathy but also hold their ground under difficult circumstances.
Human services professionals employed by non-profits typically take a more administrative approach. These employees must be driven and detail-oriented. Paperwork can pile up quickly, so exceptional time management is a must.
Deciding Which Field to Enter
Whether you enter social work or counseling and human services, your efforts will transform lives. Ultimately, the decision comes down to how clear-cut of a path you desire, and how long you’re willing to wait to enter the field in an official capacity. With social work, you’ll follow a defined, but more extensive path that includes supervised clinical experience. As a human services graduate, you can enter your dream job quickly. You’ll enjoy access to a broader range of positions and specialties, which could prove useful as you embark on your job search.
If you’re passionate about your community and determined to make a difference, take time to explore your options. A human services education could provide the skills and credentials needed to pursue your passion and build a strong career trajectory.