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Human Services vs Social Work

June 26, 2019

It may seem odd to position this topic as human services vs social work, especially since the two careers have a great deal in common on the surface level. Social work and human services are both broadly focused on helping individuals, groups and communities to improve their lives, solve problems and integrate social services.1 However, there are differences in the degree programs and outcomes of a Master’s in Social Work and a Master’s in Human Services. We’ll explore similarities and differences here so that you can find the best fit for your future endeavors.

What can you do with a human services degree?

Human services tend to be as broad as the problems and needs of the client base being served. In order to prevent and rectify problems that affect the quality of life of people in need, human services professionals incorporate aspects of psychology, social work, criminal justice in their skillsets. While the soft skills of human services degree programs are similar to social work programs, there are some differences in the harder skills such as business and managerial skills since students who are drawn to this area of the field are generally hoping to work in a managerial or administrative capacity. Graduates with a master’s in human services have the skills and knowledge to work at the program level of social and human services agencies in roles such as program managers, researchers, planners, fundraiser and grant writers, administrators and directors, to name a few. The day-to-day activities and responsibilities vary depending on the employment setting, but generally the responsibilities of a human services professional include:2

  • Managing staff and daily activities
  • Coordinating with other human and social services agencies
  • Researching to ascertain if services are effectively reaching target populations
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses of existing services
  • Recommending and implementing improvements in the delivery of services
  • Adjusting programs to meet the community’s changing needs

What is social work?

The field of social work can be broken down into three types of practice: macro, mezzo and micro social work. Macro social work focuses on the community at large and systems-level functions, mezzo social work deals with smaller groups such as neighborhoods and community organizations, and micro social work focuses directly on the individual client or family (this is usually seen in clinical social work such as therapy).3

Social work can be seen as a subsection within the larger field of human services. At its most basic level, social work is concerned with relieving people’s suffering, fighting for social justice and improving the lives of individuals and communities. Social workers can be found in hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes, schools as well as the military to name just a few.4 Much like human services professionals, social workers can work in a myriad of roles and help clients and communities with a wide range of issues, some of these include:5

  • Administration and management: These roles require basic management skills as well as knowledge of social policy and the delivery of social services, an ability to look ahead and an understanding of human behavior
  • Advocacy and community organization: Advocacy is a cornerstone of social work. A social worker must champion the rights of individuals and communities. Organizing a community to work together towards social justice is a key component of achieving equality and rights for all
  • Rehabilitation: Social workers help individuals, families and even whole communities recover from substance abuse. These social workers can be found doing casework management, group and individual therapy, family counseling, education and policy creation
  • Mental health and clinical social work: Clinical social workers are one of the nation’s largest providers of mental health services. This is usually done in a one-on-one setting
  • School social work: These professionals work as the liaison between school, home and the community services to help students with emotional, developmental and educational needs.
  • Research: Social work is a science-based field, and this requires research and evidence for best practices. These social workers use their research to provide guidelines or framework for effective practice.

Which role fits your needs?

Both human service professionals and social workers are important roles that serve the needs of people, but they do so in different ways. Human services most closely match macro social work, focusing on the bigger picture. For example, professionals in these roles do things like plan programs to address the needs of a particular population or larger community, they’ll work in administrative positions to ensure that things run smoothly in their agency or program. Social workers often work in administrative roles as well, but they can also work one-on-one with clients, connecting them to the appropriate services or assessing their needs to provide personal counseling, which is something that human services professionals do not do.

If your career goals are to help people on a broad scale, a macro social work or human resources career will suit you. If you feel more drawn to working with clients on a one-on-one basis, mezzo or micro social work may be a better fit. When choosing between social work and human services programs, it’s important to remember that social workers typically need to be licensed in order to provide services, while human service professionals do not need licensure in certain fields. Social work degrees typically prepare you to earn your license while human service degrees prepare you to lead manage and lead within organizations.

All social services careers are integral to promoting social good and assisting those in need, and each of these professions provides a different and unique way to help vulnerable populations. The best way to determine which career path in social work and human services suits you best, you should first try to imagine how you would like to spend your working hours and then figure out which tasks and settings would be the most intriguing and rewarding for you personally.

Whether you are just beginning your career or you’re planning your next stage of development, it’s important to consider your individual combination of interests, skills and experience and how it can help you serve others. To learn more about how to use your unique skills and viewpoint to increase your impact while helping the underserved, check out the online Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University.

1 Retrieved on June 7, 2019, from nationalhumanservices.org/what-is-human-services
2 Retrieved on June 7, 2019, from gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-and-human-service-assistants.htm#tab-2
3 Retrieved on June 7, 2019, from socialworkdegreeguide.com/faq/what-is-macro-social-work/
4 Retrieved on June 7, 2019, from socialworkers.org/Careers/NASW-Career-Center/Explore-Social-Work/Why-Choose-the-Social-Work-Profession
5 Retrieved on June 7, 2019, from socialworkers.org/News/Facts/Types-of-Social-Work