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How to become a community health worker
Community health workers (CHWs) are indispensable bridges between communities and health and/or social service systems. They connect people in their community with the services they need, from health care to counseling to job training and more, much like social workers in some ways.
The role of community health workers is expansive and can take many forms, which is why a community health worker is an umbrella term for numerous job titles.
What is a community health worker?
Community health workers are liaisons between communities and health and social service systems. They are usually members of the communities they serve, with whom they often share identities such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, language, culture or values.
This positions them to be effective bridges between people and the systems they seek to connect them with. Community health workers may be paid as full or part time workers or may be volunteers. By increasing access to essential health and social services, they aim to improve the health and wellness of their communities.
There are lots of positions out there called ‘community health workers.’ However, a CHW may go by other job titles too, including but not limited to:
Community health worker vs. social worker
A lot of the work that community health workers do is similar to the work performed by social workers. Community health workers and social workers may and often do work alongside one another.
The main difference between these two roles is that social workers are usually licensed and have an educational background fitting of their license (often a bachelor’s degree or higher). CHW jobs, on the other hand, usually don’t require as much education as a social worker and may not need a license depending on where they work.
4 steps to become a community health worker
Determine if the job is right for you.
Community health workers are out in their communities, helping people face-to-face and connecting with them vital health resources. They must have excellent communication skills, a desire to help others and be very adaptable. If you think you have what it takes, this career could be right for you.
Get a degree.
There are no universal education requirements for community health workers. Some positions may only require that you complete on-the-job training to be qualified. However, a college degree could set you apart from the competition and teach you valuable knowledge and skills that you can apply to your career. Earning an associate or bachelor’s degree in public health, social work, education or another relevant subject area is worth consideration.
Complete necessary training, if applicable.
Some states require that community health workers complete a certification program (usually offered by the state) to be eligible for payments from public payers such as Medicaid. Even though most states that offer CHW certification programs do not require certification for employment, these programs can be a great addition to your resume and get you up to speed on the essential functions and duties of a CHW. Furthermore, individual employers may want their CHWs to be certified in some way.
Apply for jobs.
The best way to start gaining experience is to simply start looking for jobs. Since community health workers positions can go by many names and entail a wide variety of responsibilities, qualifications for positions can vary, too. Look for positions in the environments you’d like to work and start helping others. Some jobs may provide additional training after hiring someone.
What does a community health worker do?
The objective of community health workers is to connect people in their community to health and social services. The scope of their individual position may vary quite a bit depending on where you work and for whom, but that objective remains consistent.
The job duties of a community health worker often include:
Meet with clients in the community to assess their health needs and goals
Follow up with clients regularly and document their ongoing needs and progress
Facilitate health screenings and referrals
Conduct community outreach, such as providing professional services
Direct clients to necessary health and social services and help them sign up for applicable programs
Act as an interpreter/translator when there is a language barrier
Refer clients to other professionals such as social workers, case managers, primary care providers and more
Develop education programs to coach clients about healthy behaviors and best practices for staying healthy, which could be related to diet and nutrition, sex education, vaccinations, substance abuse, child development.
Some examples of the types of resources that CHWs may connect community members with include:
Choosing the right education program for you
There is no one-size-fits-all education when it comes to becoming a community health worker. In fact, some jobs require no more than a high school diploma and some on-the-job training. That said, some post-secondary education may be necessary for your particular job or, at the very least, could put you ahead of the competition and make you a stand-out candidate.
An associate or bachelor’s degree could be especially beneficial to a community health worker. Associate degrees take less time to complete—typically two years—which means they also tend to be more cost-effective. However, a bachelor’s degree may qualify you for more positions or set you up for advanced leadership roles later in your career. Higher-level positions, especially in hospitals or large health systems, may require at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. It really depends on the individual employer and their requirements.
What you’ll study
There are many subjects that community health workers can study that would prepare them for their roles. Some common degree areas for community health workers include:
Many states offer voluntary certifications for community health workers, and many more are in the process of developing certification programs. In states that have certifications for CHWs, it may be necessary for clients to get reimbursed by Medicaid for CHW services, either directly from Medicaid or from their state’s health department.
In other words, not being certified burdens the client. These new certification programs are part of a wider effort to incorporate community health workers more into state health systems so that their services are even more accessible to underserved populations.
Individual employers may require community health workers to get certified as a requisite for employment, or they may require you to complete a certification program after hire.
How much do community health workers make?
In May 2022, community health workers across the nation had a median annual wage of $46,190. The highest-paying state for community health workers is the District of Columbia followed by Rhode Island, New Mexico, Connecticut and Nevada.
It’s important to note, however, that the number of community health workers in these states make up only a small portion of the community health workers in the entire nation. The states that employ the greatest number of community health workers are New York, California, Texas, Washington and Ohio.
Median Salary: $46,190
Projected job growth: 15.9%
10th Percentile: $32,180
25th Percentile: $38,010
75th Percentile: $59,220
90th Percentile: $73,730
Projected job growth: 15.9%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$61,870||$43,820||$103,470|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Employment of community health workers is expected to grow 15.9% through 2031, much faster than the average across all occupations (about three times faster, to be exact).
Opportunities for community health workers may continue to grow as health departments realize the efficacy of CHWs and begin to rely more on CHWs to combat a shortage of social workers. In addition, many states are considering creating or expanding certification programs for community health workers which could lead to more jobs.
Is this career path right for me?
As valuable to society as community health workers can be, it’s not a career that any person can thrive in. It takes a particular person, guided by an inherent desire to help others, to really flourish as a community health worker in spite of its challenges. However, if you think you have what it takes, you may reap the reward of a gratifying career that lasts a lifetime.
|This could be a great career if…||You may not enjoy this career if…|
|You enjoy working directly with diverse populations on a daily basis||You prefer a job with minimal social interaction|
|You want to get experience that could help a career in public health, social work or health education||You desire a high salary|
|You want to make a difference in your community||You have difficulty working in environments where funding is sometimes lacking or unpredictable|
|You enjoy teaching others||You prefer to work in a consistent setting with minimal travel|
|You want a job with a strong future outlook||You lack creative problem-solving skills|
Where they work
Community health workers can work in a variety of settings and are often employed by:
Although community health workers may be employed by any of these entities, that doesn’t necessarily mean they conduct their day-to-day job duties there. Community health workers by their very nature are front-line workers out in the communities they serve. On a given day, they might find themselves visiting a client’s home, conducting a health presentation at a school or helping run a pop-up resource tent at a local community center. Although clerical work is necessary, CHWs tend to have active roles that put them where they are needed most.
Frequently asked questions
Can a community health worker be a nurse?
Although nurses and community health workers have a similar mission to improve the health and wellness of their communities, their jobs differ significantly. Nurses must graduate from a nursing program and be licensed to practice. It’s entirely possible for a community health worker to go back to school to become a nurse—or a nurse specialize as a community health nurse—but these roles don’t typically overlap unless someone with the appropriate education and licensure chooses to work part-time as both a nurse and community health worker.
Can a community health worker work from home?
It may be possible for a community health worker to work from home and meet with clients virtually. However, community health workers are known for being on the frontlines of public health. This means that most jobs probably require you to be out in the community and meeting people face-to-face.
Where do community health workers get paid the most?
According to the BLS, the top-paying states with the highest annual mean wage for community health workers are the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Connecticut and Nevada. Several of the top-paying metropolitan areas for CHWs are also in California, such as San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. Other top paying metro areas include Bend/Redmond in Oregon, Carson City in Nevada and Washington D.C.
Ready to get started?
Becoming a community health worker allows you to make a profound impact on people within your community. Your help could be just what someone needs to make informed decisions about their health—there are practically endless possibilities for how you could make a difference. Getting a post-secondary degree in a relevant subject such as public health, social work, psychology or health education could springboard you to an array of community health worker positions and set you up for a rewarding career.
Published: April 19, 2023