What Is Human Services?

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Human services worker with client

The field of professional human services is, simply put, the practice of helping others. But the profession is much more nuanced than that. Within it, there are many different roles one can take on: counselor, child welfare advocate and community liaison, just to name a few. Seeking a career in human services can be rewarding, both professionally and personally, and because the need for human services professionals is on the rise, so are the number of positions and the earning potential for many of them.

The National Organization for Community Services defines the profession as “approaching the objective of meeting human needs through an interdisciplinary knowledge base, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems … one which promotes improved service delivery systems by addressing not only the quality of direct services, but also by seeking to improve accessibility, accountability and coordination among professionals and agencies in service delivery.”

In this article, we’ll take a look at four distinct aspects of the human services field in order to answer the question, “what is human services?” and understand why the industry is critical to society. These aspects are prevention, remediation, the promotion of improved service delivery and theoretical approaches used by industry professionals.


Most of us have heard the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this truer than in the human services field — where industry professionals are tasked with protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens by attempting to foresee and prevent problems before they happen.
At the top of the “most vulnerable” list are our children. Human services professionals often work for their local Department of Human Services, which manages support resources, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants and Children; and Head Start. These programs provide financial assistance, offer nutrition support and promote school readiness for low-income children and their families. Human services professionals also prevent harm from coming to children by working in the child support enforcement field, with foster care providers and with child protective services, visiting the homes of at-risk children to check on their welfare.

Human services providers also often choose to work with organizations that aim to prevent elder abuse or provide assistance to vulnerable populations, such as seniors, the homeless and people with disabilities, in order to ensure they get the care they need.


Unfortunately, prevention isn’t always possible. In that case, human services professionals are there to solve problems after they occur. They are skilled at identifying issues and selecting intervention methods that promote growth, change and goal attainment. People working in human services conduct situational assessments and analyze problems to select the best strategies and services to appropriately help their clients remedy a problem. These interventions may include advocacy, counseling, referrals or other assistance methods.

The process of planning and executing these interventions requires human services professionals to be able to analyze problems, make decisions, and design and implement work plans for individual clients, families or even entire communities.
These problem-solving remediation skills require that human services workers understand human behavior and development, group and family dynamics, community organizational structure, policymaking standards, and systems’ effects on human problems.

Improved Service Delivery Promotion

So far we’ve answered the “what is human services?” question by focusing on the health care aspect of it, but let’s look at another side: education and recreation. The human services industry also promotes the increased accessibility and coordination of services, as well as accountability within the services provided. This means human services professionals could choose to work, for example, with youth programs or community improvement projects, or as vocational, school or guidance counselors.

Human services can mean providing information to individuals, groups, organizations or communities to keep them informed about specific programs and events. For example, a person within the human services industry might choose to work for a community center and promote youth sports, senior gatherings or other recreational opportunities.

Theoretical Approaches

People who are interested in entering the field of human services know they want to help others, and by studying theoretical approaches, students can learn best practices to help them achieve these goals. By gaining an understanding of the history and evolution of human services and social policy, students will acquire knowledge about the field’s values and ethics and learn how to apply these principles in day-to-day practices.

Human services is a network of systems designed to help people from all walks of life. As a human services professional, it’s imperative that one recognize his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the system as a whole, in order to understand how to offer the most effective aid to the largest number of people.

A few of the theories a human services student might encounter include psychodynamic theory, which explains how internal and external forces interact, and how that interaction influences individual behavior and development. There’s also conflict theory, which addresses power structures and how people from various social groups are affected differently by them. Finally, systems theory investigates human behavior and how society as a whole influences it.

Learn More:

The human services field is expansive and varied, as are the positions available within it. There are associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs available to help those seeking a career in human services learn what they need to do to reach their goals and understand what those jobs will look like once they’re there.

The Master of Counseling program at Wake Forest University can help give students the tools they need to enter the counseling profession with a firm grasp of key concepts and training. Find out more about our comprehensive curriculum and apply today.

Suggested Readings:
10 Questions Counselors Could Ask about Culture
Do “Trigger Warnings” on School Campuses Help? Counselors and Students Weigh In
How Counselors Help Students Cope with Traumatic Events

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Organization for Human Services
Social Work License Map
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics