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Nature of the Work
* Social and human service assistants ranks among the top 10 fastest growing occupations.
* Job opportunities should be excellent, particularly for applicants with appropriate postsecondary education, but pay is low.
Social and human service assistants is a generic term for people with various job titles, including social service assistant, case management aide, social work assistant, residential counselor, community support worker, alcohol or drug abuse counselor, mental health technician, child-care worker, community outreach worker, life skill counselor, and gerontology aide. They generally work under the direction of professionals from a wide variety of fields, such as nursing, psychiatry, psychology, rehabilitation, or social work. The amount of responsibility and supervision they are given varies a great deal. Some are on their own most of the time and have little direct supervision; others work under close direction.
Social and human service assistants provide direct and indirect client services. They assess clients' needs, establish their eligibility for benefits and services, and help clients obtain them. They examine financial documents such as rent receipts and tax returns to determine whether the client is eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, and other human service programs. They also arrange for transportation and escorts, if necessary, and provide emotional support. Social and human service assistants monitor and keep case records on clients and report progress to supervisors. Social and human service assistants also may transport or accompany clients to group meal sites, adult daycare programs, or doctors' offices; telephone or visit clients' homes to make sure services are being received; or help resolve disagreements, such as those between tenants and landlords. They may also help clients complete applications for financial assistance or assist with daily living needs.
Social and human service assistants play a variety of roles in community settings. They may organize and lead group activities, assist clients in need of counseling or crisis intervention, or administer a food bank or emergency fuel program. In halfway houses, group homes, and government-supported housing programs, they assist adult residents who need supervision in personal hygiene and daily living skills. They review clients' records, ensure they take correct doses of medication, talk with their families, and confer with medical personnel to gain better insight into clients' backgrounds and needs. They also provide emotional support and help clients become involved in community recreation programs and other activities.
In psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation programs, and outpatient clinics, they may help clients master everyday living skills and teach them how to communicate more effectively and get along better with others. They support the client's participation in the treatment plan, such as individual or group counseling and occupational therapy.
Working conditions of social and human service assistants vary. They work in offices, group homes, shelters, day programs, sheltered workshops, hospitals, clinics, and in the field visiting clients. Most work a regular 40-hour week, although some work may be in the evening and on weekends. Social and human service assistants in residential settings generally work in shifts because residents need supervision around the clock.
The work, while satisfying, can be emotionally draining. Understaffing and relatively low pay may add to the pressure. Turnover is reported to be high, especially among workers without academic preparation for this field.
Social and human service assistants held about 178,000 jobs in 1996. About 1 in 3 were employed by State and local governments, primarily in public welfare agencies and facilities for mentally disabled and developmentally delayed individuals. Another third worked in private social or human services agencies, offering a variety of services, including adult daycare, group meals, crisis intervention, counseling, and job training. Many social and human service assistants supervised residents of group homes and halfway houses. Social and human service assistants also held jobs in clinics, detoxification units, community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals, day treatment programs, and sheltered workshops.
While some employers hire high school graduates, most prefer applicants with some college preparation in human services, social work, or one of the social or behavioral sciences. Some prefer to hire persons with a 4-year college degree. The educational attainment of social and human service assistants often influences the kind of work they are assigned and the amount of responsibility entrusted to them. Workers with no more than a high school education are likely to receive on-the-job training to work in direct care services, while those with a college degree might be assigned to do supportive counseling, coordinate program activities, or manage a group home. Employers may also look for experience in other occupations, leadership experience in an organization, or human service volunteer exposure. Some enter the field on the basis of courses in human services, psychology, rehabilitation, social work, sociology, or special education. Most employers provide in-service training such as seminars and workshops.
Because so many human services jobs involve direct contact with people who are vulnerable to exploitation or mistreatment, employers try to select applicants with appropriate personal qualifications. Relevant academic preparation is generally required, and volunteer or work experience is preferred. A strong desire to help others, patience, and understanding are highly valued characteristics. Other important personal traits include communication skills, a strong sense of responsibility, and the ability to manage time effectively. Hiring requirements in group homes tend to be more stringent than in other settings. In some settings, applicants may need a valid driver's license and must meet the Criminal Offense Record Investigation (CORI) requirement. Special licensure or State certifications may also apply.
In 1996, about 380 certificate and associate degree programs in human services or mental health were offered at community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and other postsecondary institutions. In addition, approximately 400 programs offered a bachelor's degree in human services. Master's degree programs in human services administration are offered as well.
Generally, academic programs in this field educate students for specialized roles. Human services programs have a core curriculum that trains students in observation and recording, interviewing, communication techniques, behavior management, group dynamics, counseling, crisis intervention, case management, and referral. General education courses in liberal arts, sciences, and the humanities are also part of the curriculum. Many degree programs require completion of an internship.
Formal education is almost always necessary for advancement. In general, advancement requires a bachelor's or master's degree in counseling, rehabilitation, social work, or a related field.
Opportunities for social and human service assistants are expected to be excellent, particularly for applicants with appropriate postsecondary education. The number of social and human service assistants is projected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations between 1996 and the year 2006ranking among the most rapidly growing occupations. The need to replace workers who retire or stop working for other reasons will create additional job opportunities. These jobs are not attractive to everyone due to the emotionally draining work and relatively low pay, so qualified applicants should have little difficulty finding employment.
Opportunities are expected to be best in job training programs, residential settings, and private social service agencies, which include such services as adult daycare and meal delivery programs. Demand for these services will expand with the growing number of older people, who are more likely to need services. In addition, social and human service assistants will continue to be needed to provide services to the mentally disabled and developmentally delayed, those with substance-abuse problems, the homeless, and pregnant teenagers. Faced with rapid growth in the demand for services, but slower growth in resources to provide the services, employers are expected to rely increasingly on social and human service assistants rather than more highly trained workers, such as social workers, who command higher pay.
Job training programs are expected to require additional social and human service assistants as the economy grows and businesses change their mode of production, requiring workers to be retrained. Social and human service assistants help determine workers' eligibility for public assistance programs and help them obtain services while unemployed.
Residential settings should expand also as pressures to respond to the needs of the chronically mentally ill persist. For many years, chronic mental patients have been deinstitutionalized and left to their own devices. Now, more community-based programs, supported independent living sites, and group residences are expected to be established to house and assist the homeless and chronically mentally ill, and demand for social and human service assistants will increase accordingly.
The number of jobs for social and human service assistants will grow more rapidly than overall employment in State and local governments. State and local governments employ most of their social and human service assistants in corrections and public assistance departments. Corrections departments are growing faster than other areas of government, so social and human service assistants should find that their job opportunities increase along with other corrections jobs. Public assistance programs have been employing more social and human service assistants in an attempt to employ fewer social workers, who are more educated and higher paid.
Workers in other occupations that require skills similar to those of social and human service assistants include social workers, religious workers, occupational therapy assistants, physical therapy assistants, psychiatric aides, and activity leaders.
Information on academic programs in human services may be found in most directories of 2- and 4-year colleges, available at libraries or career counseling centers.
For information on programs and careers in human services, contact:
National Organization for Human Service Education, Brookdale Community College, Lyncroft, NJ 07738.
Council for Standards in Human Service Education, Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill, MA 01830.
Information on job openings may be available from State employment service offices or directly from city, county, or State departments of health, mental health and mental retardation, and human resources.
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