Careers in Health, Education, and Social Work Spotlight

Published December 2020 | Back to all news and updates 

Community Health Workers Have Many Career Paths

The unique nature of work performed by Community Health Workers (CHWs) allows them to cross over into many different career paths. Typically, the progression from one career to the next is visualized as a “career ladder” which describes climbing upwards towards a better or higher-paying position. However, because the skillset required of a CHW overlaps with skillsets required from many other professions, a CHW’s career movement cannot solely be described as going “up” and “down” or being better or worse.

Rather, a “career web”, which allows for movement in many directions, better depicts the idea that there are a variety of different paths that can lead an individual into and out of the CHW profession.

Although there are different career paths for a CHW, many people have vibrant and successful careers as lifelong CHWs. As with all things in the workforce, longer experience in a role often increases how effective an individual is in that role.

Each month, we will highlight the journey of individuals’ professional development into roles within and outside of the CHW profession. The first story is about Jennifer’s journey from CHW to Licensed Social Worker. The second features Jose, who became a case manager after working as a CHW in a children’s hospital. These stories illustrate how the CHW profession builds skillsets that are desirable across industries and the key differences between the CHW profession and other careers in related fields.

Jennifer’s Story: From Community Health Worker to Licensed Social Worker

This vignette is a story of a CHW as they move on to another career as a Clinical Social Worker.

Jennifer worked as a CHW at a health clinic for around two years. During her time as a CHW, most of her responsibilities revolved around providing social support for domestic violence victims. She enjoyed almost all aspects of her job as a CHW. However, the program she worked was grant-funded resulting in uncertainty around whether funding would get renewed every year. The stress due to financial uncertainty led Jennifer to begin searching for a new position. She looked at other CHW programs in the area but most of them were also grant-funded. She then decided to consider positions outside of CHW work. She wanted to maintain many of the same responsibilities and still be able to assist the community. During her time as a CHW, she worked with many social workers who had duties that interested Jennifer professionally. To gain more information she had a conversation with a social worker who worked in the same clinic. They told her about the responsibilities within the role and that there could be considerable schooling depending on the route Jennifer wanted to go. Her coworker explained that an entry-level position required a bachelor’s degree and an advanced role entailed a master’s. She was very intrigued by the work done by social workers but was concerned about the schooling involved. However, she always enjoyed being in school and knew she qualified for federal funding to help pay for school. After careful consideration, she decided to embark on the social worker path.

Jennifer began the journey by enrolling in a social worker program at a local university. At the start of the program, she was unsure of what direction to go within social work. Throughout her time, she began to enjoy being in school and became close with one of the professors who was a former clinical social worker. As Jennifer worked more with this professor, she quickly grew passionate about clinical social work and focused her education in that direction. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work she decided to start looking for a job. After searching for many months, she found an entry-level role at a hospital doing administrative social work. She chose this role as the organization had a professional track to becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

To continue her path to becoming an LCSW Jennifer still needed to acquire a master’s degree, complete supervised experience, and pass a clinical licensure exam. After a year in her role as a social worker, Jennifer enrolled in a clinical master’s program. She applied for a program at the same university she obtained her bachelor’s. She ended up getting into the program and after two years earned her master’s in clinical social work. Her employer was understanding of her desire to become an LCSW and allowed her to work part-time as a social worker while in school. Following graduation, she started supervised clinical training at the hospital where she was employed. She continued supervised training for about two years until she felt comfortable to take the exam to receive licensure. Following one failed attempt, she got her state clinical licensure. She eventually attained a position at the hospital she worked at for many years and began her career as an LCSW.

Jose’s Story: From CHW to Case Manager

This vignette is a story of a CHW as they move on to another career as a case manager.

Jose started working as a CHW at a children’s hospital after completing his associate degree in psychology. He had always lived in a rural area that was predominantly Latino. He had a great relationship with the community and always wanted to find a meaningful job where he could help the community. He took the role as a CHW to fulfill his mission to assist the community but did not see himself staying in the profession forever. The role also required most work to be done out in the community and he wanted an office position. Before becoming a CHW he had considered becoming a case manager. He had not pursued the role because it required a bachelor’s degree and, at the time he was not ready to continue school. He felt like after a few years as a CHW it was time to finish up his degree and move into a case manager role.

Jose joined a psychology bachelor’s program at a community college. Most of the credits from his associate’s program transferred over, so he was able to finish in two and a half years. After obtaining his bachelor’s in psychology, Oliver started looking for case manager jobs. The majority of the positions he saw required a couple of years of experience, and Oliver was able to use his time as a CHW to fulfill this condition. Eventually, he found a position at a health care company in a program that focused on case management for severe mental illness. He obtained the role and began his position as a case manager.

Note these stories are based on real-life scenarios but contain fictional characters.

Download the CHW Career Web Model Resource for free!

Our CHW Career Web Model resource demonstrates the numerous ways that an individual can find themselves becoming a CHW or how they may progress their career under various ‘career clusters’ like social work, clinical, or advocacy after being a CHW. The resource can be used as a tool by organizations that work with CHWs such as community-based organizations, CHW Associations, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), Primary Care Associations (PCAs), and Area Health Educations Centers (AHECs) to help explain the different career trajectories those in the CHW workforce have.

Blog Topics

About MHP Salud

MHP Salud has over 35 years of experience implementing CHW programs and training organizations looking to start and/or strengthen their own CHW programs. Visit our CHW Training & Consulting Services page to learn more about how we can help.