Are you a match for direct-service social work?

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: May 31, 2022


As employers continue to ramp up their recruitment efforts – responding to an uptick in both community need and agency turnover – jobseekers in the purpose-driven sector are likely seeing an increase in open positions. That’s especially true in the area of direct service: social work, counseling, and other roles involving hands-on work with clients.

If you’re new to this work, or this sector, you may be wondering: What exactly do direct service roles involve, and could they be a fit for me?

In short, direct service work means helping people directly – working with individuals, families, or children to either prevent or deal with problems in their day-to-day lives.

Social work and direct service are umbrella terms, covering a wide range of positions. In direct social service, you could be working with any of a huge number of issues: financial and housing stability, food security, educational obstacles, recovery from trauma or abuse, mental health, chronic illness, or many others. These positions are also needed in a wide variety of organizational settings: hospitals, schools, child welfare or adoption agencies, temporary housing providers, food banks, legal service providers, and many, many more.

A position in social work, counseling, or direct service might be right for you if:

  • You enjoy helping others. Do you find it motivating, inspiring, or energizing to provide someone with assistance and see their lives improve as a result? Social service can be extremely rewarding for those who do.
  • You are skilled at communicating with people who are in a vulnerable situation. Have you ever been told you’re a good listener or a highly empathetic person? Do friends and family seek you out when they need advice, perspective, or a shoulder to cry on? Experience with interviewing and counseling are highly valuable for this work.
  • You are detail-oriented, a critical thinker, and unafraid to make tough decisions in collaboration with others. People seeking human services are often facing difficult circumstances, and agencies tasked with helping them often have limited resources and options. Indeed, the institutions that social services clients must deal with (the child welfare system, the justice system, the education system, etc.) require the ability to navigate a maze of policies and to carefully consider a number of trade-offs. Analytic and organization skills are a must.
  • You are resilient – mentally, emotionally, and physically. You may realize that burnout in the purpose-driven sector is high, but working directly with those suffering day-to-day hardship can be especially fatiguing in terms of both mental and physical health. Direct service professionals should be adept at self-care. (Fortunately, employers are increasingly making self-care activities a part of the work schedule.)

Demand for direct service work has been rising in recent years and is predicted to continue in that direction. The areas of health care, substance abuse, and mental health services are expected to be most in-demand for the future, but due to the clinical nature of this work the requirements are likely to be heavier in terms of academics (such as a Bachelor of Social Work) and certifications (such as a state license). Advanced requirements and experience are also needed to take on leadership positions like program manager or services director.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for social workers in 2020 was $51,760, but compensation can vary greatly depending on responsibilities and location. Among the Work for Good listings active at the time this article was written, you could find a part-time advocate position paying $16 an hour, a full-time outreach coordinator position making $40,000-plus a year, and a service division director opening that pays as much as $160,000 yearly.

Currently, the Work for Good job board lists dozens of positions in social work and direct service, with job titles such as:

  • Literacy and Academic Prep Program Manager
  • Forensic Interviewer / Advocate
  • Community Integration Social Worker
  • Family Intervention Specialist
  • Foster Parent Recruiter
  • Homeless Impact Division Director
  • Youth Advocate
  • Foster Home Licensing & Training Specialist
  • Parent Services Coordinator

With great demand, opportunities for advancement, and impact that’s clear and rewarding, direct service and social work could prove to be a fulfilling career for anyone seeking to make a positive difference in people’s lives.


By Keri Bass
Keri Bass Assistant Director of Vocational Exploration and Career Coach