What Is Human Services? Explaining This Caring Career Field

photo of a human services professional smiling at a client and writing on a clipboard

Setting out on a new career path might be in the cards for you. You want a stable job that can pay the bills but—perhaps more importantly—you want to pursue a line of work that actually feels fulfilling at the end of a day. You know there are a lot of people out there in your community who need help and feel the need to answer their calls. Because of this, you might be wondering if a career in the human services field is the right fit for you.

But what exactly is human services? And what do these professionals do to help in their communities? You likely have a lot of important questions like these to consider—so we’re going to dive in and help you get a better understanding.

What is human services?

“Human services is an interdisciplinary field whose primary commitment and aim is to meet the basic physiological and wellness needs of populations through prevention, remediation and treatment,” says Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a senior-level administrator with more than 15 years in the human services field.

The word “interdisciplinary” comes up often in regard to this field. That’s because human services relies on people with different skillsets and areas of expertise to work together to help those in need.

The job titles and roles of a human services professional can be wide ranging, but here are a few examples to give you an idea of the options available:

  • Youth worker
  • Client advocate
  • Adult day care worker
  • Case management aide
  • Social work assistant
  • Community organizer
  • Group home worker
  • Mental health aide
  • Juvenile court liaison
  • Child advocate
  • Life skills instructor

With such a variety of job titles, it’s no surprise that human services professionals can find themselves in many different workplaces. The National Organization for Human Services (NOHS) shares that work settings can include group homes, halfway houses, mental health centers, drug or alcohol rehabilitation centers, child and family services agencies, correctional facilities and others.

Regardless of where a human services professional works, the goal is the same: “to assist individuals and communities to function as effectively as possible in the major domains of living,” according to the NOHS.

Why is human services important?

People who work in this field often provide resources and care for the most vulnerable members of our community: children and the elderly, those with disabilities or mental illnesses, people who have been abused or who are overcoming addiction, and those who are trying to find their footing after a natural disaster or other emergency.

You might not consider yourself part of any of these populations today, but you never know when you might need the essential support offered by human services. “The field is critically important because everyone has needs,” Dr. Strayhorn says, “not just ‘special needs’ populations, not just aging people, and not just ill or dying patients.”

Dr. Strayhorn points out that many people are just an injury, trauma or disaster away from needing assistance. Without external support from human services agencies, their quality of life can rapidly decrease. People who don’t receive interventions from human services can experience negative outcomes like homelessness, chronic pain or illness, addiction or even death.

How does human services improve the community?

The human services field plays a vital role in serving communities across the nation. “Without them, there would be no aid for victims of natural disasters, no support for youth negatively impacted by the foster care system, and no care or coverage for the blind,” Dr. Strayhorn says.

Human services professionals often intervene at critical moments, changing the trajectory of someone’s life forever. A teen struggling with mental health diagnoses or addiction could receive treatment, medication and resources that allow her to go on to live a successful adult life. An elderly person who loses their home in a natural disaster can find the support that allows them to avoid bankruptcy and continue living an independent life.

This field doesn’t just benefit those who receive its services; it provides positive effects to society as a whole. For one thing, it offers an incredible financial benefit by saving money. Addressing child abuse and neglect for just one year costs the U.S. $124 billion.1 When human services professionals prevent and break the cycle of abuse, they are reducing that cost.

That’s just one example of the ripple effect this field can have across communities, but there are countless more. “At the societal level, negative outcomes that can occur without human services include unhealthy lifestyles, depressed global wellness, non-flourishing communities, and lack of quality of life,” Dr. Strayhorn says. In short, a community without human services isn’t one most of us would want to live in.

Who is well-suited for a career in human services?

Human services professionals engage in roles that are both administrative and client facing. This career path includes everything from being a case management assistant to an adult day care worker, and everything in between.

This range of career options means that there’s plenty of room for narrowing down specific roles that fit well with your own skills and interests. However, there are some common traits that are needed for nearly every human services career.

Someone who aspires to this field should be “an open-minded individual who is a good listener, empathetic and has a strong desire to give back to the community,” according to Jennifer Servais, Rasmussen College Human Services instructor.

The NOHS recommends a similar list of characteristics. In addition to caring for others, they also include strong communication and organizational skills. Human services careers can come with a lot of paperwork as professionals keep detailed records of their cases and clients, making these organizational skills essential for the job.

Working in human services isn’t always going to be a walk in the park. There will be clients who test your patience and your empathy. Through it all, a successful human services professional will remember their reason for entering the field in the first place: a strong desire to help others and improve their community.

A career that serves others

Now that you’re clear on the definition of human services, you might be able to see yourself taking on a role in this important field. Don’t stop now! Learn more about what your future career could look like with our article “3 Human Services Careers You Could Launch with an Associate’s Degree.”

1U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Child abuse and neglect cost the United States $124 billion, [accessed September, 2020] https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2012/p0201_child_abuse.html

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.

This online Human Services program at Rasmussen University is designed for non-licensed positions and does not academically qualify graduates for any state professional license. It is not intended for those seeking employment as a licensed social worker.

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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