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The human services and social work professions are similar in some ways. Both fields are concerned with helping people in need and performing services and tasks that help to solve or reduce social problems. However, there are aspects of the work and tasks in human services and social work that make them differ from each other somewhat.
By learning about these two similar but different fields, you can decide whether human services or social work is best for your career goals.
Human Services and Social Work Defined
Human services is defined as a profession that is designed to fulfill a variety of human needs. Human services is an interdisciplinary field that attempts to prevent and address problems and to improve the quality of life for patients and clients. A professional who works in human services will work with individuals, families and communities in needed social service tasks in their daily lives.
Social work as a discipline is concerned with empowering and enabling people. One of the main drivers of social work as a profession is social justice. Those who study and work in social work often are helping people who have been adversely affected by inequities in society as well as other deeply entrenched social problems.
Clearly these fields are very similar, but human services and social work professionals work in divergent ways to address the needs of society. Human service workers focus on broader work in a needed community. They tend to work more in a community based setting and coordinate social services.
Social workers normally work one-on-one with clients to help them to get the social services and help that they need to improve their lives. They also may serve as counselors and make various community services available to their clients.
Also, many positions that are available in human services are in the area of management. Human services professionals may work as an administrator for a social services or advocacy organization. Most such human services organizations are made to serve an underserved community. Human services professionals typically assist those in need to get access to basic needs, including shelter, food and water.
A professional with a social work degree normally is working with an individual to meet their needs one on one. So, you will usually work directly with the client to assist him or her to obtain access to services that help with their problem, such as domestic abuse or substance abuse.
Major Occupations for Human Services and Social Work
A good way to learn which field is preferable for your career and personal goals is to study the major job duties of professionals in each field:
Human Services Manager
Professionals with a degree in human services will often work as a human services manager, or perhaps as a human services coordinator, and later be promoted into management. Human services managers work as leaders in a variety of human services and social services agencies.
Human services managers work to ensure that the staff of their social services organization is meeting goals and targets, and is operating efficiently. You may work with other leadership members to create new systems and processes to enhance workflow and productivity.
This might mean engaging in effective speaking and writing, creating presentations, monitoring the work and productivity of staff, and evaluating expenditures and budgets. Major duties of human services managers may include:
- Working with upper level management to improve human and social services processes
- Analyzing budget and expenditures of the human services agency to improve financial efficiency
- Work with staff of the human services agency to implement new social services policies
- Interact with the public you serve to resolve any issues
- Act as a liaison between upper level management and lower level employees
Human services professionals may work in a variety of environments, from halfway houses to group homes, to government agencies to private practices.
Most human services managers work in a management and/or leadership capacity, and do not require a license to work. This is very different from social work, where all social workers must have a state license to practice.
Social workers help individual clients to solve and cope with problems in their lives. Clinical and healthcare social workers who have a master’s degree also may diagnose and treat mental and emotional issues in their clients.
Major duties for social workers with their individual clients are as follows:
- Assess the needs of clients, as well as their personal situations and strengths
- Assist clients to make necessary changes to their lives after illness, job loss, divorce or loss of a child or loved one
- Research and refer to clients to community resources, including food stamps and child care
- Respond to various crisis situations involving child abuse, substance abuse, physical or mental health emergencies
There are various types of social workers that work with different types of clients:
- Child and family social workers: Protect children and help families in need of social service assistance. They assist families in finding needed services, such as childcare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and substance abuse counseling. They also may intervene when a child is being endangered by neglect or abuse.
- Clinical social workers: These are mental health professionals who are licensed to treat and diagnose many mental, behavioral and emotional problems. They have the license and skills to provide individual, family and group therapy. Clinical social workers work with their clients to help with mental and emotional health problems.
- School social workers: They work with teachers, students and parents to devise plans and strategies to improve the academic performance of students. They also focus on helping students to improve their social development. Students and families may be referred to them to address problems related to bullying and aggressive behavior.
- Healthcare social workers: Work with patients and families to understand a healthcare diagnosis and to make any necessary adjustments to housing, lifestyle and healthcare. They may work with patients to transition from the hospital and back to the home, for example.
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers: Assist clients with addictions and mental illness. They will offer needed information on services, support and 12 step programs so the patients can better work through their disorder or condition.
Remember that all social workers must be licensed in the state in which they live and work. This is an additional process above and beyond graduating from your degree program. A certain number of clinical or residency hours also are required under each state’s laws.
Online Bachelor’s Degree Examples
You also can see the differences between human services and social work by reviewing the curriculum for each in an online bachelor’s program.
Southern New Hampshire University offers an online bachelor’s degree in human services. Available concentrations are in child and family services, gerontology and substance abuse.
Common jobs for graduates are caseworker, crisis intervention specialist, home health aide, human services manager or coordinator, and probation officer.
- Lifespan Development
- Abnormal Psychology
- Sociology of Social Problems
- Introduction to Human Services
- Public Policy and Advocacy
- Case Management
- Communication Skills for Human Services Professionals
The University of North Dakota offers an online bachelor’s degree in social work that is 39 credits in length and can be completed in approximately three years. This degree program is a pathway to licensure for many states, but it is advised to contact your state’s social services department to learn more.
In addition to your online classes, you are required to complete a 450 hour field placement in your own community. Your faculty advisor will help you to find a suitable field placement in a local social services setting.
Required courses include:
- Introduction to Social Work
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment
- Social Work Research Methods
- Generalist Social Work Practice with Individuals and Families
- Social Policy
- Generalist Social Work Practice with Communities and Organizations
The fields of human services and social work are closely related, but the differences have been highlighted above. Both have excellent career growth potential. Which you choose just depends upon whether you want to work in a one on one setting with specific clients, or in a more community based way.
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- What’s the Difference – Social Work and Human Services? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://online.brescia.edu/human-services-news/whats-difference-human-services-social-work/
- Social Worker. (2015, Dec. 17). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm