What Is a Human Services Specialist?

At a Florida youth camp for middle and high school students, at-risk kids are getting an unusual set of role models these days… wizards. At the Heartland Rural Health Network’s i Make a Difference program (iMAD), a group of human services professionals use fun and interactive activities based on the Harry Potter universe to broach sensitive subjects such as contraception, teen pregnancy, and social awareness.

It’s just one example of the kinds of innovative and important programs human services specialists are bringing to disadvantaged populations nationwide.

Because human needs cover a wide range of necessities, you can find human services professionals specializing in a wide swath of different activities… everything from managing adoptions to assessing individuals with developmental disabilities to administering financial assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and state-level energy assistance programs.

Some general human services professionals, depending on the structure of the agency they work with and the size of the population they serve, may simply handle every possible type of human services need that comes in the door. And, increasingly, they are using the broad principles of applied behavior analysis to do so; a scientifically-validated, proven set of techniques that can be used to reinforce or discourage behaviors in any individual or population.

Working in human services can show you the best and worst in people, and offer you the opportunity to show others your own best every day.

It’s a position that can show you the best and worst in people, and offer you the opportunity to show others your own best every day.

The core of being a human services worker is to help people meet their basic needs and to develop their potential as human beings through offering timely, appropriate services and assistance.

Some human services professionals work for private employers, generally in health or mental welfare services. By far the largest number are employed by government agencies, however. State, local, and federal agencies that specialize in healthcare, education, and general welfare all need sensitive, well-trained, capable individuals to help fulfill their missions of public assistance.

Human Services Specialist Job Descriptions

Whether a human services job carries the title ‘professional’, ‘specialist’, or ‘worker’ is largely down to hiring agency standards and regional usage of the terms… the job descriptions are more or less interchangeable.

The jobs themselves, however, can cover almost any human service need under the sun. Some human services professionals spend their day behind a desk, reviewing and managing individual cases or developing systems and programs of assistance, like the iMAD program. Others are out on the road every day, checking in on homeless clients, visiting foster homes to check living conditions, or counseling drug addicts on safe injection practices.

Because many government assistance programs are means-tested, and because the application forms are often written more for lawyers than for the low-income or disabled people actually filling them out, it takes an army of human services professionals to assist with and evaluate applications.

Many human service specialist jobs are in eligibility and benefits determination, interviewing and deciding whether or not specific applicants can receive aid, and what level is appropriate.

It’s a field where you can find a position to fit your personal passion for helping people, or even create one if you see a need that isn’t being met.

Getting the Right Education To Become a Human Services Specialist

Because the field is so wide-ranging, you can find human service worker jobs to match almost every level of education or experience. Whether you have a high school diploma or a master’s degree, whether you are fresh from another field or have years of experience, you can find a position in human services.

But there are ways that you can and should prepare yourself for the more complex and sensitive roles in the field.

A college degree in social work, social science, psychology, youth development, or a criminal justice field from a fully accredited institution is almost always a good investment for human services work. The more specialized the human services role you seek, the more specific your degree should be.

It may also be important, depending on the field, to ensure your school holds a specialty accreditation for the degree program… for instance, from the CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) for social work degrees.

For the most advanced human services roles – including licensed social workers in any specialty or area of practice, including caseworker, counselor or clinical social worker – a master’s degree is the standard  requirement. These positions require the more advanced knowledge, communication skills, and analytical abilities that a master’s program will instill in you. In many fields, master’s degrees also include supervised field experience that can give you hands-on practice in the field.

For entry-level positions, though, much of the training will take place on the job and be agency specific.

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Do You Need Licensing or Certification to Become a Human Services Worker?

State Licensure – Though most entry-level human services positions don’t require a specific license or certification, any independent casework, clinical or counseling work does require you to be licensed by the state you work in.

A license to practice human services work is standard for any job that involves working independently or that focuses on health, mental welfare or counseling. For example, many states require assisted living service providers or childcare workers to be licensed, and all states require a license to be recognized as a social worker, and that almost always involves earning a master’s degree.

National Certification – National certification is completely voluntary and should not in any way be confused with a state-mandated license that may be legally required to practice. Think of national certification as something you can earn on your own as a way to show your commitment to the profession and your expertise, but is not something ever mandated by any law.

There is the Human Services Board-Certified Practitioner credential, a nationally recognized credential that is available through the National Organization for Human Services (NOHS). In conjunction with the Council for Standards in Human Services Education and the Center for Credentialing and Education, NOHS offers the HS-BCP to individuals with associate, bachelor’s, or advanced degrees who demonstrate their abilities and experience in 11 competency areas across the human services spectrum.

Although the HS-BCP is not typically required for human services workers, it does help build your expertise and demonstrate your commitment to the field for potential employers.

Should I Get a BCBA to Work in Human Services?

Becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) today requires a master’s degree in psychology, education, or applied behavior analysis, so it’s not a path that is taken lightly. Many human services professionals who may use ABA don’t need to become board-certified for their positions.

But the increasing adoption of ABA across the social services spectrum, combined with upcoming changes in the way that the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) grants certification is opening the field up to professionals working in the human services field too.

A committee of subject matter experts recommended that the BACB open up the requirements for a BCBA or BCaBA to accept individuals with master’s (or bachelor’s, in the case of the BCaBA) in other fields, including in human services. By expanding the availability of the credential, the BACB hopes to bring ABA into more widespread use, as well as diversify the ranks of BCBAs to bring in fresh experiences and perspectives.

Starting in 2022, with a master’s in social work, human services or a related field, you’ll soon be able to satisfy the BCBA education requirements by earning a post-graduate ABA certificate from schools offering the stand-alone Verified Course Sequence (VCS)… in fact, some schools are already enrolling students into VCS programs who hold a human services master’s. With the general alignment of behavior analysis and human services work, you can expect to see some human services roles requiring a BCBA when the certification becomes more widespread.

Typical Salaries for Human Services Specialists

Most human services professionals fall into the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Social and Human Service Assistants category, which covers services in a variety of fields including psychology, rehabilitation, and social work. For 2021, the median pay for that job classification came out to $37,610 per year, or $18.08 per hour. Workers in the top ten percent earned more than $59,490 annually.  

  • 25th percentile: $30,440 
  • 50th percentile: $37,610 
  • 75th percentile: $46,960 
  • 90th percentile: $59,490 

Social and Human Service Assistants earned the highest mean salaries in the following states: 

  • District of Columbia: $62,210 
  • Connecticut: $51,480 
  • California: $48,380 
  • North Dakota: $47,140 
  • Alaska: $45,590 

The top-paying metropolitan areas for Social and Human Service Assistants, according to mean salary, were: 

  • Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT: $56,140 
  • Danbury, CT: $54,870 
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $54,590 
  • Norwich-New London-Westerly, CT-RI: $54,120 
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $52,500 

But certain positions might fall into other, closely related categories, such as: 

  • Childcare workers – $27,490/yr 
  • Health Educators and Community Health Workers – $60,600/yr 
  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors – $48,520/yr 

Many positions are ranked in terms of salary according to duties and experience, particularly in government service. You will often find positions with the same title but different ranks, such as human services professionals I, II, and III.  

According to BLS, salaries for human services workers at private employers tend to be lower than for those in government service. On the other hand, you may enjoy more flexibility and more opportunity to implement your own ideas and innovations with private employers. 

Either way, human service workers sleep well at night knowing they’ve made a difference in the lives of their community and individual clients… a kind of compensation that no money can buy. 

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social and Human Service Assistants; Childcare workers; Health Education Specialists; and Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.