Human services and social work are two fields that are often referred to interchangeably, and although there are many similarities, there are significant differences between them. Both professions aim to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities, but the approach, scope, and target populations vary. Understanding the key differences between human services and social work* can help individuals choose the right college degree and career path and make a positive impact on society.

Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between human services and social work so you can choose the degree that best suits your professional goals.

What is Human Services?

Human services is a broad field that encompasses a variety of services designed to meet the needs of individuals and communities. The nonprofit National Organization for Human Services defines it in the following way: 

“The field of Human Services is a broadly defined one, uniquely approaching the objective of meeting human needs through an interdisciplinary knowledge base, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems and maintaining a commitment to improving the overall quality of life of service populations. The Human Services profession is one which promotes improved service delivery systems by addressing not only the quality of direct services, but by also seeking to improve accessibility, accountability, and coordination among professionals and agencies in service delivery.”

The focus of the field is on helping people meet basic needs — such as food, shelter, and health care — and helping improve their quality of life. Human services professionals work in a range of settings, including nonprofits, community agencies, government agencies, and private organizations.

What is Social Work?

Social work — on the other hand — is a specific profession within the human services field. Social Work License Map defines it the following way:

“Social work is a practice-based profession that promotes social change, development, cohesion and the empowerment of people and communities. Social work practice involves the understanding of human development, behavior, and the social, economic, and cultural institutions and interactions.”

Social workers help individuals, families, and communities navigate complex social issues such as poverty, homelessness, and mental health disabilities. These workers provide direct services — such as counseling, case management, and advocacy — and work to address systemic issues that affect marginalized populations. Social work is a regulated profession, often requiring a master’s degree and state licensure.**

What Are the Key Differences Between Human Services and Social Work?

Let’s look at the fields of human services and social work a bit closer by diving into their differences. We can understand them deeper by looking at the education, scope, and target population of each.

1. Education: To work in human services, a bachelor’s degree is often sufficient, but social work may require a master’s degree and state licensure, as stated above. 

Career site Indeed further explains:

“Almost all careers in social work require licensure to practice. It’s essential that individuals pursuing a career as a social worker or a clinical social worker meet licensure requirements through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). These requirements may vary by state and title. Licensure typically involves meeting education and experience requirements, submitting an application, and passing an exam. Aspiring clinical social workers may also take a law and ethics exam to ensure they understand the guidelines in their state.”

2. Scope: Human services is a broad field that encompasses a variety of services and programs aimed at meeting basic needs and improving quality of life, per Indeed. Social work is a more focused profession that addresses complex social issues through direct services and advocacy.

3. Target Population: Given its broad nature, human services professionals may work with a wide range of populations, including children, families, elderly individuals, and people with disabilities. Social workers typically work with vulnerable populations, such as individuals experiencing poverty, homelessness, or mental health disabilities.

4. Approach: Human services professionals may take a more reactive approach, providing services to individuals and communities in response to identified needs. Social workers often take a proactive approach, addressing systemic issues that contribute to social problems and advocating for policy change.

What Are the Key Similarities Between Human Services and Social Work?

Human services and social work have several similarities, which is one of the reasons the fields are often referred to interchangeably. In addition to having a positive impact on society, both fields:

  • Aim to improve the well-being of individuals, families, and communities
  • Strive to address the root causes of social problems and provide support to those in need
  • Rely on empathy, compassion, and strong interpersonal skills to build relationships with clients and effectively address their needs
  • Work in a range of settings, including government agencies, nonprofits, and community organizations
  • Include similar duties, such as conducting assessments, developing individualized plans, and providing support and resources to clients
  • Require ongoing training and education to stay current with best practices and evolving needs in their communities

Overall, the similarities between social work and human services demonstrate the common goal of improving the well-being of individuals and communities through compassionate, client-centered support.

Human Services vs. Social Work: Which Field Is Right for Me?

Human services and social work are two fields that are dedicated to improving the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Both professions offer the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the lives of others, but the scope, approach, and target populations differ. If you’re considering a career in either field, it’s important to understand the key differences and similarities to help determine which path is the best fit for you.

Human Services Jobs
Human services is a broad field that encompasses a variety of services designed to meet the needs of individuals and communities. The focus is on helping people meet basic needs — such as food, shelter, and health care — and helping improve their quality of life. Human services professionals work in a range of settings, including nonprofits, government agencies, and private organizations.

There are plenty of employment prospects for workers in human services through programs that serve the elderly, people with mental health disabilities, or individuals who are developmentally disabled. Examples of human services jobs include:

  • Social and Community Service Managers
  • Community Services Director
  • Social Services Director
  • Social and Human Service Associates
  • Non-profit Agencies
  • Community and Social Service Specialists

For more information on careers in this occupational field, please visit the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Social Work Jobs
Social work — on the other hand — is a specific profession within the human services field. Social workers help individuals, families, and communities navigate complex social issues, such as poverty, homelessness, and mental health disabilities. They provide direct services — such as counseling, case management, and advocacy — and work to address systemic issues that affect marginalized populations. Examples of social work jobs include:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Probation/Parole Officer
  • Social Work Supervisor
  • Mental Health/Substance Abuse Social Worker
  • School/Medical Social Worker
  • Therapist/Counselor
  • Behavior Analyst
  • Child Welfare Worker

Key Criteria for Working in Human Services vs. Social Work

Well-being is a common focus of these fields, and both offer the opportunity to help make a meaningful impact on the lives of others. Let’s look deeper into education requirements, as well as the scope, approach, and target populations of each field. Understanding these criteria in-depth, along with how they will apply to the career you choose, should provide a foundation for your research of these fields.

Let’s dive into some tips for choosing a career in human services vs. social work, including education requirements, areas of focus, job responsibilities, and work environments.

Education Requirements

Human services: A bachelor’s degree in human services or a related field where you learn about social structures and systems and how people interact with them may be sufficient to start a career in human services, according to Indeed. Some positions, such as a Medical and Health Services Manager or Social and Community Service Manager, may require a master’s degree or advanced training in a specific area of focus.

Social work: To become a licensed social worker, Indeed advises that you will likely need a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and you’ll need to pass a licensing exam. A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) can also provide entry into the field, but a master’s degree is necessary for advanced practice and clinical roles. Depending on which state you live in, you may need to complete the following five steps, according to Social Work License Map:

  1. Complete your undergraduate education requirements
  2. Pursue an accredited MSW
  3. Complete your ASWB exam
  4. Apply for a social work license
  5. Complete your continuing education to remain licensed

Areas of Focus

Human services: Human services is a broad field that encompasses a variety of services designed to meet the needs of individuals and communities. Areas of focus within human services include mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, gerontology, and individuals with disabilities, according to National Organization for Human Services.

Social work: Social work, again, is a specific profession within the human services field that focuses on tackling complex social matters. Social workers also provide direct – and sometimes clinical – services. Examples include counseling, case management, and advocacy.

Job Responsibilities

Human services: Human services professionals may be responsible for conducting assessments, developing individualized plans, and providing support and resources to clients. They may also work in community organizations, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations. Indeed lists some of the typical services provided by human services professionals:

  • Managing community programs and initiatives
  • Connecting individuals, families, and groups to necessary resources or agencies
  • Performing crisis intervention activities
  • Researching community resources and trends
  • Implementing strategies at a local or national level to solve public issues
  • Advocating for social justice causes and raising awareness

Social work: By working to address systemic issues that contribute to social problems — such as poverty and homelessness — social workers may work in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, nonprofits, and community-based organizations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), core responsibilities of social workers include:

  • Identifying people and communities in need of help
  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives — such as illness, divorce, or unemployment — by assessing needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Researching, referring, and advocating for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and health care, to assist and improve a client’s well-being
  • Responding to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Offering counseling psychotherapy services as needed

Work Environments

Human services: Human services professionals may work in a range of settings, including nonprofits, government agencies, and private organizations. They may also work in community-based programs or individual client settings, according to Indeed.

Social work: The BLS finds that similarly, social workers may work in diverse environments such as schools, hospitals, nonprofits, community-based organizations, and government agencies. It is also common to work in private practice as clinical social workers.

Tips for Choosing a Career in Human Services or Social Work

As shown above, there are many reasons to pursue a career in either of these fields. So how do you choose between human services and social work? Use the following tips to help you decide which field is right for you.

1. Determine your goals and values: Consider your personal values and the type of work you would like to do. Human services is a reactive field, providing services to individuals and communities in response to identified needs. Social work is a proactive field, addressing systemic issues that contribute to social problems and advocating for change at the social and policy levels.

2. Research both fields: Research education requirements, job responsibilities, work environments, and areas of focus within each field to determine which path aligns with your interests and goals.

3. Consider the population you would like to serve: As a human services professional, you may work with children, families, elderly individuals, people with disabilities, and populations from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Social workers often work with vulnerable populations, such as individuals experiencing poverty, homelessness, or mental health disabilities.

4. Think about your level of education: To work in social work, you will likely need a master’s degree and state licensure. Pursuing a career in human services, on the other hand, may not have this type of educational requirement.

Overview: Human Services vs. Social Work

Human services and social work are two fields that have a common goal of improving the quality of life and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Both fields work toward empowering people to overcome their challenges and achieve their goals, but they differ in the approach and services they provide.

Social work is a professional discipline within the field of human services, and social workers are trained to help individuals and communities address a range of social and personal problems. For this reason, social work often requires an advanced degree and state licensing, while human services professionals may not be required to attain additional certification to work in the field. If you are interested in pursuing either field, start by pursuing your bachelor’s degree today and dive deeper into your passion.

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*The University of Arizona Global Campus does not offer offer a degree program in social work or any degree programs that lead to becoming a licensed social worker in any state.

**The completion of a UAGC degree program does not lead to certification or licensure. Degree programs offered by UAGC are not licensure programs and do not prepare an individual to become a licensed social worker. UAGC does not guarantee that any professional organization will accept a graduate’s application to sit for any exam for the purpose of professional certification or licensure. Students seeking licensure or certification in the field of social work should carefully research the requirements prior to enrollment. Requirements vary by state. Further, a criminal record may prevent an applicant from obtaining licensure, certification, or employment in this field of study.

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