Human Services vs Social Work: What’s the Difference?

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On the surface, social work and human services careers have much in common. In fact, by the most general definition social work careers are classified as human services, along with other professions including counseling, rehabilitation, and more.1 That is because like social work, human services careers are all broadly concerned with serving families, individuals, and communities to improve quality of life, remediate problems, and coordinate services through a multidisciplinary approach.2 Naturally, having such an all-encompassing mission leads to plenty of overlap between the roles of professionals working in the human services field.

But there is a difference between earning a Master of the Arts in Human Services (MAHS) and earning degrees in social work, counseling, or any of the other professions which comprise the field. While all of these different roles are important, it is equally important for the agencies and organizations from which they serve to have effective leadership. From understanding the financial challenges of operating a nonprofit, to having the managerial talent to attract and empower diverse teams, human services leaders require a specialized education that the MAHS provides.

Leading human services teams

Communities They Serve

Given the overlap of their missions, it might seem obvious that the same employers would attract these different individuals.

Social workers and human services professionals can typically anticipate finding jobs in the same kinds of organizations: state and local government departments, nonprofit groups, as well as religiously-affiliated missions serving the community.1 Many of the places that employ human services professionals  are nonprofits which operate adjacent to other services; for example, students and families may connect with social workers through their school to access mental health and counseling resources; for others, the local criminal justice system may refer certain defendants and clients for substance abuse counseling or other rehabilitative services.

One increasingly common starting point for human services clients is the healthcare system. Between an aging population and the expansion of health insurance coverage, more and more people are seeing doctors and receiving treatment from hospitals. Many medical issues can have a non-medical cause or side-effect which requires services from a different, non-clinical professional such as a counselor. As a result, social workers across the country are dealing with an influx of demand from patients seeking additional resources and guidance as they deal with the social elements of their health.1

As human services organizations become more closely associated with medicine and healthcare, growth in demand for one often correlates with growth in demand for the other. In this respect, human services is much the same as any other industry: opportunities for employment appear wherever demand is focused.


An Expanding Mission, A Growing Opportunity

The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates growing demand across the board for these types of employers, especially for nursing and residential care facilities, whose populations are expected to grow in coming years and will therefore need additional help accessing services and resources.1 There is also expected to be additional demand for vocational rehabilitation services, as people face changes in their employment and disruption to the economy in terms of the skills in demand in a given community.1

As demand for human services organizations and professionals grows across the board, so too will the demand for leadership within these organizations increase.

The growing and diversifying client-base translates into greater need than ever for workers in the field, available to hospitals, schools, and community centers to ensure everyone who needs assistance has access to the right people. But meeting these needs across the spectrum of regions and populations is as much a challenge of coordination and planning as it is matching skills with client needs.3 While social workers must creatively apply their training and resources to better serve each client, human services leadership must likewise take a strategic approach to studying and understanding the broader communities they serve. The goals are similar, but the scale is different, just like a single doctor treating patients compared to a hospital director dealing with an entire population.

Of course, not all of the skills needed are the same between social workers and human services leadership. Since so much of the human services sector is made up of nonprofits, leadership here takes a combination of financial savvy and strong communication skills. After all, remaining solvent and able to meet a community’s needs depends in part on an organization’s ability to speak to its mission, attract donations and operate with fiscal discipline.3 In publicly-funded organizations at the state or local level, fiduciary responsibility is still a challenge that can have a major impact on a team’s ability to serve their clients.

At the same time, a solid management sensibility in human services takes a foundation in human resources, recognizing the strengths and limitations of a diverse team of multidisciplinary professionals, and understanding how, when, and where they can be deployed. Leaders and managers must understand the needs of the communities they serve as well as the capacity and limits of the teams they assemble to serve.3


How Human Services Professionals Lead

The primary difference earning a MAHS degree makes is preparing graduates for leadership roles in their organizations. Generally speaking, counselors and social workers will be dispatched to get hands-on with the populations they serve, helping to connect families and individuals with resources, or providing direct care and attention to clients.4 Their education and practice is client-focused, meaning they are preoccupied with working directly with the individuals and families looking for help. Even within this end of the human services spectrum, there is still plenty of room for variety.

Counselors and social workers may find themselves occupied in schools, working with students and their families to achieve everything from higher graduation and college enrollment rates, to combating drug and alcohol abuse or bullying. They may also get referrals from the hospital to connect families with financial support services, nutritional education and assistance programs, or even counseling. Whatever specific client population or skill set these workers specialize in, their effectiveness depends in part on being accessible at one of the key places where people know they can get the help they need.4

This is part of the role of leadership in human services. While they may still spend time in the field, they must also maintain a higher-level perspective in order to balance the needs of their community with the limited resources–human and financial–their organization possesses. And while most of these organizations operate with a clearly defined humanitarian mission, it is still critical for their leadership to promote and maintain a company culture that is supportive, positive, and constructive.3 It is not enough to rely on the drive and sense of purpose that each worker brings to the organization; the difference between simply managing a team and truly leading it can come down to intangible skills like the ability to inspire and advance a collective culture across all staff.3


Social Work and Human Services: Different Parts of the Same Whole

Clearly, there is substantial overlap between the specific roles counselors and social workers play, and the scope of the human services profession. Both are concerned with empowerment. In the field, social workers are tasked with empowering clients to become more self-sufficient, to overcome their social, financial, and interpersonal challenges, and to lead more healthy and productive lives. At the head of organizations, human services leadership are tasked with empowering staff to better serve their communities, with ensuring the long-term stability of their department or agency, and with maximizing the impact of their teams through strategic planning and creative problem-solving.

When looking to specialize and complete advanced education for a career in this field, there are many things to consider. What demographic would you most like to serve: children, families, or adults? Would you rather work in a public setting–like a school, hospital, or community resource center–or somewhere else, like a private practice center for therapy or vocational rehabilitation?

Whether you are just beginning your career or planning your next stage of development, it is also important to start thinking about your unique combination of skills, experience, and interest to determine whether you wish to serve at the individual level, or help coordinate and lead from the organizational level. There is a great need for committed professionals in both types of roles, and incredible opportunity to make a difference in countless lives.

Management and leadership roles are precisely what the MAHS is designed to prepare graduates to fulfill. Coordinating all these different professionals, connecting with the populations who need their help, and managing the organizations which employ them, all makes for a challenging yet critically important managerial mission.



1: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social and Human Service Assistants

2: National Organization of Human Services, What is Human Services?

3: Semantic Scholar, Leadership and Performance in Human Services Organizations

4: BLS, Helping Those in Need: Human Service Workers