An Overview of Human Services Employment in the Public, Non-Profit and Private Sector

Not surprisingly, there are differences in what you can expect from a career in human services depending on whether you’re working with a government agency, or within the private or non-profit sectors. And with those differences come some trade-offs you’ll have to consider as you decide on what’s most important to you in your career.

Use this guide to help you understand those differences and the many benefits that come with landing a job in human services, whether with a government agency, non-profit organization, or private enterprise.

And there is plenty of movement within the industry between private sector, nonprofit, and government positions as well, so you don’t need to worry about getting stuck in one or the other. It’s common to shift sectors one or more times in the course of a career.

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Public Sector Employment in Human Services

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2020, 69,950 child, family and school social workers were employed by state run social services agencies, and another 62,000 worked for local municipal government agencies. Another 45,960 worked in elementary and secondary schools directly that year. Combined, far more social workers specializing in child and family services work in the public sector than for privately run non-profit agencies.

Whether at public hospitals, social service and public health departments, or schools, it’s typically seen as the responsibility of government to provide human services assistance to the public.

Even within government agencies, there are an enormous range of roles in social services, but there are certain things that are similar across the board. Working for a state or local government agency almost always involves interacting directly with the public. You will be expected to maintain the highest standards of professionalism as a representative of the government. Usually, states provide extensive and valuable training in areas such as cultural competency. This kind of diversity training is designed to give you the resources you need to effectively serve people from all backgrounds and walks of life. This kind of training will prove to be extremely enlightening, and will certainly be an excellent supplement to the formal education you get in your degree program.

Working in the public sector offers rewards and challenges you won’t find in the private or nonprofit sectors. Typically, working in a public capacity comes with more rules and regulations to be aware of, but also comes with access to all the information and resources the agency has developed over the years, and some great opportunities for professional development.

Entry-level positions within the public sector are available with a bachelor’s degree in human services, social work or the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology, etc.). For the most part, even a bachelor’s will primarily qualify you only for clerical or low-skill positions.

The higher pay and greater responsibility that comes with becoming a licensed clinical social worker, requires you to earn a Master of Social Work.

Being able to influence policy, develop programs and allocate resources in a management or higher level leadership position, you’ll find MSW and even MBA programs available with a public administration focus can provide an excellent educational background for this kind of work.

Government Work Comes With Excellent Salary and Benefits – and More

Contrary to what you might think, you’ll find that salaries are higher for social workers in the public sector than they are for those working for non-profits and private sector business that provide social services on a contract basis. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows child, family and school social workers with state agencies earning an average of $52,000 in 2020, while local government agencies pay an average of $58,350. Salaries for social workers in this category working in elementary and secondary schools came in at an average of $65,080 that year.

Public sector pension and benefit structures are also typically more generous than those in the non-profit or private sectors, with retirement benefits that are both secure and generous.

Some of the benefits of working in public service include:

  • Far greater latitude in leave time since other workers in the agency are able to perform the same function as you
  • Excellent benefits packages, including dental and vision as part of your medical benefits
  • Very generous retirement packages compared to those found in the private sector
  • Very competitive graded salary system based on seniority

Perhaps the greatest benefit you’ll enjoy working for a government agency is the vast network of resources available to back you up. Some of the many resources at your disposal include:

  • The treasure trove of knowledge and experience of your fellow workers
  • The extensive trainings you receive
  • The large amount of state databases you have access to
  • Being able to connect your clients with state benefits programs

But perhaps the greatest reward comes from working directly with people in your own community. The satisfaction this brings to public sector work is immeasurable. From the smile of a small child who knows they will go shopping that night, to the relief in a senior’s eyes when they have access to much-needed medical services, few jobs will impact so many people in such positive ways.

Navigating Rules and Red-Tape Can Be Challenging

The downside of working for a government agency is the reams of paperwork and many rules you will have to comply with. As a human services professional, your first inclination will almost always be to find a way to offer help. But you’ll find that government social services programs come along with stringent and sometimes maddeningly arbitrary rules about who you get to help and who is left out. It can be emotionally taxing to stand by and watch without being able to actually provide assistance. Some find that navigating the red-tape is a far cry from what they entered the field to do.

There are also many requirements for documentation over and above what private sector human services might require. You can find yourself behind a desk almost as often as out actually helping in the community.

Nonprofit Employment in Human Services

One of the most diverse areas to work in the human services field is the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits fill in many niche services the state is unable or unwilling to provide. From women’s shelters, to homeless outreach, needle exchange programs, and mobile dental services for the poor, the nonprofit sector provides critical services for at-risk communities that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

One of the advantages of working at a nonprofit is that you tend to have a very focused purpose, providing one particular service to a select part of the community. Rather than a generic, one-size-fits-all approach, nonprofits are able to specifically tailor programs to the unique needs of individuals in different communities.

For example, at a women’s shelter for domestic violence survivors, you can expect to have access to specialized resources to help women struggling with the unique problems that come along with surviving violence in the home. The Raphael House in Portland, Oregon, for example, has developed the Multnomah County Domestic Violence Response Team (DVERT), which uses a nationally recognized model of intervention that places an emphasis on providing coordinated, multi-disciplinary responses to high-priority/high-risk domestic violence cases. And in Seattle, Mary’s Place, a non-profit dedicated to sheltering homeless women and children, struck up a partnership with Amazon to co-house a new shelter in one of their buildings, an arrangement that provides more than 200 beds in a city where the homeless population is skyrocketing.

Non-Profit Work Allows You to Specialize in a Specific Niche and Develop Closer Relationships with Clients

There’s a number of characteristics unique to nonprofit work:

  • Due to their narrow focus, many nonprofits are able to tailor programs to meet the specific needs of a particular community.
  • Nonprofits tend to be more smaller, making them more responsive to the needs of their workers and clients, and more capable of adjusting quickly to emerging circumstances.
  • Nonprofits often foster deeper connections with the community members they help due to ongoing and lengthy contact.
  • Working for nonprofit organizations is a great way to break into the field and boost your resume.
  • Nonprofits often yield the deepest sense of satisfaction among human services workers as their relationships with clients are often deeper.

Nonprofit corporations offer a solution to fill in many of the niches in between state and private sector human services providers. When government agencies find it politically impossible to set up needle exchange programs, for example, nonprofits backed by the North American Syringe Exchange Network step to handle it instead, helping to reduce epidemic levels of disease being spread by shared needles.

There’s also room for entrepreneurial spirit in nonprofits; something that appeals to many social workers. Your limits are the funds you can help raise and the missions you want to take on. Everything else is details. That sense of the possible is powerful stuff for someone looking to change the world.

From health clinics to homeless shelters to youth sports to disaster response, nonprofit human services organizations are hungry for staff. This sometimes means that nonprofits aren’t as picky about formal credentials. A bachelor’s degree or higher is always appreciated, but it’s often possible to get your foot in the door with a good heart and the willingness to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. This can provide just the kind of experience you need to get inspired to take the next step to a more long-term position in human services.

If you are looking to make a profound and lasting impact on the lives of those in need and have a specific cause you want to aid, the nonprofit sector may be ideal.

Private Sector Employment in Human Services

Not many people think of the private sector when they think of human services positions, but there are certain areas of practice where for-profit companies or individual providers dominate. These include:

  • Sports psychology
  • Couples counseling
  • Clinical psychology
  • Healthcare social workers

Working for privately owned companies that provide support services for government organizations dedicated to public health and social welfare can even open the door to aspects of human services you didn’t even know existed in areas like:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Management
  • Human Resources
  • Public Relations

You’ll even find human services positions related to counseling and other services within human resources departments at large companies, as well as specialized sociological research positions that range from field work to back room data crunching. There are private sector companies that specialize in substance abuse and behavioral disorder treatments, and some that provide child care services. If it’s possible to charge enough of a premium to turn a profit at it, the private sector will offer a human services solution.

Private Sector Work Values Your Creative Input and Comes with Competitive Pay

Depending on the career path, work in the private sector can offer the potential for the greatest level of flexibility and input. Just as you would expect in any private corporation, your ability to think outside the box and develop creative solutions is something that is highly valued.

Working independently offers even more opportunity for this kind of freedom. If you set up a private counseling practice, for example, you would have total freedom to shape your own practice as you see fit.

This certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t positions that demand more structure and purely analytical skills. Someone has to gather and analyze all the sociological data that goes into determining where and how government resources are allocated, and government agencies rarely handle this kind of work in-house. Instead, they prefer to contract it out to private companies.

Beyond the diversity of job opportunities, other benefits of working on the private side of the human services field include less red tape and more merit-based promotion opportunities. There is no shortage of compelling reasons to join the human services workforce with a company that provides contract services.

Private sector employers tend to be more qualification-focused than nonprofits, so you can expect to need a bachelor’s degree at minimum for most of these jobs. If you are aiming to get started in private counseling services, you are looking at a master’s degree in social work or a doctorate in psychology to conform both to state licensing requirements and client expectations.

In the field of sociological research, a master’s degree in sociology with an emphasis on research and statistics is highly desirable; sometimes a bachelor’s degree in the same area with experience can be substituted for a master’s.

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2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job market trends for Child, Family and School Social Workers represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed November 2021.

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