Social Work

How to Become a Social Service Manager

How to Become a Social Service Manager
The first step in becoming a social service manager is getting a bachelor's degree in social work or a similar field. Image from Unsplash
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Elen Turner December 30, 2019

A career as a social service manager entails a lot of frustrating uphill battles. But if you face emotionally challenging days with grit, grace, and a solution-based mindset, you may just be what your community needs.

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When you think of careers in social services, you probably think of one-on-one social work rather than the managerial aspects that occur behind the scenes. But for every social service organization—regardless of whether it works to provide support to the LGBTQ+ community or long-term care for the elderly—there’s a need for social service managers. These social work professionals are managers first and foremost; they ensure the effective operation of a social work organization, from non-governmental to governmental to faith-based. They understand and skillfully navigate the social work universe even if they have never worked as practicing clinical social workers themselves.

Looking to combine your management skills with a life of service? Becoming a social service manager will help you achieve your goal. In this article, we’ll explain how by addressing:

  • What does a social service manager do?
  • Education needed to become a social service manager
  • How to become a social service manager
  • The skills needed to become a social service manager

What does a social service manager do?

There are some critical differences between a social worker and a social services manager. While the two jobs overlap—social service managers usually come to the job through social work—they aren’t the same.

What is a social service manager?

“Social service manager” is not a single job title in this always-growing field. As you pursue this career, you will need to look for listings under a variety of headings. The job title depends on the organization within which the manager works and the specific operations the manager oversees.

Other names for a social service manager include “social work manager” and “social and community service manager.” No matter the name, this is predominantly an administrative role. In it, you will assist organizations that improve the lives and circumstances of specific populations (e.g.,children, veterans, substance abusers).

Some people or groups that social service managers work with, directly or indirectly depending on the specific job, include:

You will sometimes see jobs for social services managers listed under such titles as:

  • Adoption services manager
  • Adult daycare coordinator
  • Bureau director
  • Child welfare director
  • Children’s service supervisor
  • Clinical services director
  • Social service director

All of these job titles are versions of social service manager roles, but differ according to the specific organizations they are connected to. They may reflect different professional experiences and expectations.

Where do social service managers work?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately one-third of America’s 169,000 social service managers work with individual and family-service organizations. The remaining two-thirds work in a wide range of organizations and practices, including:

  • Religious groups
  • Grantmaking organizations
  • Civic organizations
  • Professional organizations
  • Nursing and residential care facilities
  • State and local government (excluding education settings and hospitals)
  • Community and vocational rehabilitation services

__What duties do social and community service managers perform?___

Whatever the specific tasks of the job, the overall purpose of the social service manager’s job is to enable their organization to run its social programs efficiently, effectively, and smoothly. Because these services are critical to the organization’s mission, a social service manager’s work has a profound impact on the organization as a whole.

According to the BLS, the duties of a social service manager include:

  • Working with community members and other stakeholders to identify necessary programs and services
  • Overseeing administrative aspects of programs to meet the objectives of stakeholders
  • Analyzing data to determine the effectiveness of programs
  • Suggesting and implementing improvements to programs and services
  • Planning and managing outreach activities to advocate for increased awareness of programs
  • Writing funding proposals

The size of the organization affects the specific job duties. In a smaller not-for-profit, social services managers may need to wear many hats and perform a broader range of tasks. In a larger organization, they may focus on one specific task as other employees manage other aspects of the job.

What kind of salary and job outlook is there for a social service manager?

According to the BLS, the median income for social service managers in 2018 was $65,320. This compares favorably to the average annual income for social workers as a whole ($49,470).

Income for social services managers varies depending on the size and funding of your employer. Local government positions, not including hospitals and education, earn wages on the higher end, averaging at $83,660. Social service managers specializing in individual and family services earn at the lower end of the scale.

The job outlook for social service managers looks promising, with a projected growth of 13 percent through 2028. An aging population in need of more social services, along with an increase in people seeking treatment for mental health issues, help drive the growth in this field.


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Education required to become a social service manager

Specific qualifications may differ according to the organization employing a social service manager. In general, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for this job. General social work fields of study are helpful, including:

  • Not-for-profit administration
  • Psychology
  • Public administration
  • Social work
  • Sociology

Business administration, though not a social work field, is also a valuable major for candidates considering a career in social service management.

Some organizations may require or prefer that a candidate for a social service manager position have a master’s degree in a related field, particularly social work or business administration.

Some people move “sideways” into a social service manager position through medical education or a medical career, such as public health nursing or mental health nursing. While these qualifications are not strictly necessary to become a social service manager, they do provide another pathway to the job.

How to become a social service manager

The first step in becoming a social service manager is getting a bachelor’s degree in social work or a similar field. This typically takes four years.

It’s common for a social service manager to accrue some social work experience first, often as a case manager. While this experience isn’t necessary, at least some employers will expect (if not require) it. That’s because most prospective managers benefit from experience in the roles they will eventually manage. Field experience is also a good way to build your social work résumé.

Licensure requirements differ state-by-state, although licensure isn’t strictly necessary for many social service managers. Most managers will have earned licensure through their previous field experience.

Skills needed to become a social service manager

The role of social service manager can vary dramatically depending on the organization that hires you and the specialty you choose. That said, in all management positions, you need time-management skills, organizational skills, communication skills, and the desire to help others.

According to the British National Careers Service, social service managers must also possess the following qualities, skills, and competencies:

  • Customer service skills
  • Knowledge of psychology
  • Counseling skills, including non-judgment and active listening
  • Sensitivity and understanding
  • The ability to work well with others
  • Leadership skills
  • The ability to work well under pressure and to take constructive criticism on board
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Up-to-date knowledge of social policy and research developments in the field

Are there downsides to becoming a social service manager?

As with all social work-related jobs, social service management can be emotionally demanding. You may run into challenging, stressful work, such as:

  • Working with vulnerable people (including children)
  • Needing to raise funds to address budget shortfalls at your organization
  • Having to fire or reprimand subordinates
  • Separating personal feelings from professional duties to handle stressful circumstances

How can you learn about the social service field before deciding whether to pursue it?

No matter where you are on your career path—in high school, at a university, or thinking about a career switch—social work provides ample opportunities for volunteer work so you can get to know your potential career. Volunteering a few hours of your time at hospitals, schools, or community organizations can give you a deep sense of what to expect on your career path, or whether a specific specialty of social work isn’t right for you.

If you don’t get the opportunity to volunteer early in your journey, you’ll still get the chance if you study social work. That’s because social work degrees include a practicum component that requires you to get out into the community. Although you might be quite committed to a career in social work already, these practical experiences can tell you if you want to be on-the-ground working with individuals or prefer a managerial role.

Ready to level up? You and your leadership abilities may be more suited for a career path toward becoming a social service manager.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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