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How to Become a Community Health Worker

By Quillan Inkwell

Published:

Do you possess a combination of compassion, strong communication, and problem-solving skills? Do you want to make a positive impact on your community’s well-being? Becoming a community health worker might be the perfect path for you. In this article, we’ll answer the key questions and provide guidance on becoming a CHW.

Career Summary

Community Health Worker Salary

Community Health Worker Salary

Here are some of the key facts you’d want to consider as far as the community health worker’s salary is concerned:

  • Entry Salary (US$34k)
  • Median Salary (US$40k)
  • Executive Salary (US$57k)

Now that you have these numbers, let’s put them in perspective. The national average wage across all occupations in the United States was $61,900 in May 2022. This means that the average community health worker’s salary is low compared to the nationwide average.

What does a Community Health Worker do?

Community health work is a vital and rapidly growing profession that focuses on improving the health outcomes of individuals and communities. They provide culturally sensitive health education, support, and advocacy to underserved populations, bridging gaps in healthcare access and addressing health disparities.

Community Health Worker Career Progression

Several career paths are very typical for community health workers.

  • Community Health Worker: At the beginning of their careers, after completing a certification or short-term training program in community health, CHWs often start as entry-level workers.
  • Health Educator: As CHWs gain experience and identify areas of interest, they can choose to specialize and become health educators in specific health areas (certified diabetes educator, certified drug & alcohol counselor, etc.)
  • Program Coordinator: In this role, CHWs oversee a team of CHWs, manage programs, coordinate services, and collaborate with other healthcare professionals.
  • Advocacy and Policy Work: CHWs who are passionate about addressing systemic issues and advocating for improved health outcomes at a broader level can engage in policy work.
Community Health Worker Career Progression

Pros:

  • Making a Positive Impact
  • Building Trust and Relationships
  • Empowering Individuals
  • Promoting Health Equity
  • Community Engagement

Cons:

  • Emotional Strain
  • Burnout and Stress
  • Language and Cultural Barriers
  • Limited Recognition and Compensation
  • Dealing with Resistance or Lack of Engagement

Useful Skills to Have as a Community Health Worker

To be a successful community health worker, the following skills are crucial:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Empathy and Cultural Competence
  • Problem-Solving
  • Health Education
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Resilience and Self-Care

Popular Community Health Work Specialties

Community health workers can specialize in various areas based on the specific needs and priorities of the community they serve.

Here are some popular areas of specialization for community health workers:

  • Maternal and Child Health: Community health workers in this area may provide prenatal education, postnatal support, breastfeeding guidance, immunization promotion, and early childhood development services.
  • Chronic Disease Management: CHWs specializing in chronic disease management help individuals with chronic conditions navigate the healthcare system for better disease control and prevention.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse: CHWs in this role provide support and assistance to individuals struggling with mental health disorders or substance use disorders. They may connect individuals to counseling services, facilitate support groups, and raise awareness about mental health.
  • Aging and Elderly Care: This role involves working with older adults to promote healthy aging, ensure access to healthcare services, and provide support for independent living. CHWs in this area may assist with medication management, coordinate home-based care, and facilitate social engagement.
  • HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health: In this role, the focus is on prevention, education, and support services for individuals at risk of or living with HIV/AIDS. CHWs may provide HIV testing, facilitate support groups, and connect individuals to HIV care and treatment services.

How to become a Community Health Worker

Community Health Worker 6 Steps to Career

Here’s a brief overview of the steps you’ll need to complete to become a community health worker.

Step 1: Obtain Your High School Diploma or GED Equivalent

The minimum educational requirement for aspiring CHWs is a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) equivalent. A solid foundation in English, mathematics, and science is beneficial, as it forms the basis for further education and training.

Step 2: Consider Pursuing Higher Education Like an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s Degree

While you can become a community health worker with just a high school diploma, there are a few things you need to understand about education. Needless to say, getting better training can give you access to lucrative career opportunities.

While a college degree is not always mandatory, pursuing higher education can enhance career prospects. Many CHWs choose to pursue associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in fields such as public health, community health, social work, or a related discipline.

These programs provide a strong academic foundation and expose students to key concepts in health promotion, epidemiology, community organizing, and cultural competence.

Relevant Degree Programs

A number of college majors can be a great pick for community health workers.

A couple of great bachelor’s programs include:

  • Community Health Education
  • Public Health
  • Nursing
  • Psychology
  • Social Work
  • Human Services
  • Public Relations
  • Business Administration
  • Sociology
  • Health Care Administration

It’s interesting to point out that about 16 percent of community health workers have a degree in psychology. This major provides a better understanding of the human psyche and enables CHWs to communicate more effectively, understand the needs of people and advocate better.

The Duration and Cost of Obtaining a Community Health Worker Degree

The duration to obtain a college degree related to community health work can vary depending on the level of degree pursued and the specific program requirements.

Here is a general overview of the timeframes for different levels of degrees:

  • Associate’s Degree: An associate’s degree in a community health-related field typically takes about 2 years of full-time study to complete. However, part-time study or program-specific requirements may extend the duration.
  • Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in community health or a related field generally takes 4 years of full-time study to complete. This includes completing the required coursework, field experiences, and any additional program requirements.
  • Master’s Degree: Pursuing a master’s degree in community health or a related discipline typically takes 1-2 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s degree. The duration may vary depending on the program structure, whether it’s a full-time or part-time program, and if any additional requirements, such as a thesis or internship, are included.
  • Doctoral Degree: A doctoral degree, such as a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) or a Ph.D. in Community Health and Prevention, generally takes 3-5 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s or master’s degree. This duration includes coursework, research, dissertation writing, and any additional program-specific requirements.

The cost of obtaining a college degree in community health or a related field can vary significantly based on several factors, including the type of institution (public or private), geographical location, residency status, program duration, and additional expenses such as textbooks and supplies.

Here’s a general overview of the potential costs:

  • Associate’s Degree: The cost of an associate’s degree in community health can range from around $3,000 to $30,000 per year, depending on whether the institution is a community college, public college, or private college. Community colleges generally have lower tuition rates, while private institutions tend to be more expensive.
  • Bachelor’s Degree: The cost of a bachelor’s degree in community health can vary widely. For public colleges or universities, annual tuition costs can range from $10,000 for in-state students to around $26,000 for out-of-state students. Private institutions may have higher tuition costs, ranging from $20,000 to $60,000 or more per year.
  • Master’s Degree: Pursuing a master’s degree in community health can cost between $15,000 and $50,000 per year, depending on the institution and whether the student is an in-state or out-of-state resident. Public universities generally offer lower tuition rates for in-state students, while private institutions tend to have higher costs.
  • Doctoral Degree: The cost of a doctoral degree in community health can vary significantly depending on the program, institution, and duration. Tuition for a doctoral program can range from $20,000 to $50,000 or more per year.

It’s important to note that these figures are estimates, and the actual costs can differ widely. It’s recommended to research and consult the chosen institution to get accurate and up-to-date information regarding the costs and available financial assistance.

Can I become a CHW through online education?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a career as a community health worker (CHW) through online education. Numerous online training courses and certification programs are specifically designed to prepare individuals for a career as a CHW. These programs offer flexibility and accessibility, allowing students to learn at their own pace and from any location. An added benefit is that students wouldn’t be limited by location and only have access to local colleges/certification programs.

Online courses cover topics such as:

  • Community Health Assessment
  • Health Education and Promotion
  • Cultural Competence
  • Advocacy
  • Data Collection

Some well-known online platforms offering CHW training include the National Association of Community Health Workers, the Community Health Worker Core Consensus (C3) Project and the Community Health Worker Health Advocacy Training (CHAT) program.

It is important to note that, while online education can provide a solid foundation, some states or employers may have specific requirements for CHWs, such as practical training or fieldwork.

Step 3: Gain Relevant Experience Through Volunteer Work or Internships

Volunteering and internship opportunities for CHWs can provide valuable hands-on experience and enhance your skills in the field.

What are internship opportunities for Community Health Workers?

Here are some potential internship opportunities for CHWs:

  • Community Health Organizations: These organizations focus on addressing the health needs of specific populations or communities and often provide direct services, health education, and outreach. Interns may assist CHWs in their daily activities, participate in community engagement initiatives, or contribute to program development and evaluation.
  • Healthcare Facilities: In these settings, CHW interns may work alongside healthcare professionals, assisting with patient education, providing support in healthcare delivery, and helping to bridge the gap between healthcare providers and the community.
  • Public Health Departments: CHW interns may participate in community needs assessments, health promotion campaigns, data collection and analysis, or policy initiatives. These internships provide a broader perspective on public health practice and the opportunity to collaborate with multidisciplinary teams.
  • Non-Profit Organizations: Non-profit organizations that focus on community health and social services often work closely with specific populations, such as underserved communities, immigrants, or homeless individuals. CHW interns can assist in delivering health education programs, conducting outreach, providing case management support, or helping with advocacy efforts.
  • Global Health Organizations: For CHWs interested in global health, there may be internship opportunities with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or global health initiatives. These internships may involve working on community-based health projects, assisting in program implementation, and collaborating with local communities to improve health outcomes.

When exploring internship opportunities, it can be beneficial to reach out to your local community health organizations, healthcare facilities, or public health departments to inquire about internship programs. Additionally, attending career fairs, and utilizing online platforms that connect individuals with internships can help you find relevant opportunities.

What Skills will I learn as a Community Health Worker?

By now, you already have some idea about the skills and qualities you’ll need in order to become a successful community health worker.

Still, let’s break down the key ones:

  • Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Effective communication is a cornerstone skill for CHWs. They must be able to listen actively, convey information clearly and adapt their communication style to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities.

Advocacy skills are also very important. A community health worker will need to accomplish the following through their communication with people:

  • Encouragement and motivation
  • Empowerment to get people to make the right choice
  • The ability to listen actively and support overcoming barriers
  • Understanding of cultural and societal specifics, as well as communication specifics
  • Help in getting people to understand their needs and identify a suitable solution/course of action
  • Cultural Competence and Sensitivity

Stemming from the first one, it’s also very important to have massive cultural competence and sensitivity for the representation of vulnerable societal segments. Understanding cultural diversity and respecting different beliefs and practices is crucial for CHWs.

Cultural competence enables them to navigate cultural barriers, build trust and tailor health interventions to the community’s unique needs. CHWs should continually educate themselves about the cultural practices and health beliefs prevalent within their community, enhancing their ability to provide culturally competent care.

  • Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking

CHWs often encounter complex situations that require problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. They must be able to assess individuals’ needs, identify barriers to care, and develop creative solutions. Problem-solving skills enable CHWs to adapt to challenging circumstances, collaborate with interdisciplinary teams, and empower individuals to overcome health-related obstacles.

  • Organizational and Time Management Skills

Community health workers juggle multiple responsibilities, requiring strong organizational and time management skills. They must prioritize tasks, manage caseloads efficiently and maintain accurate documentation. Effective organizational skills ensure CHWs can provide consistent support, track progress and meet the diverse needs of the community.

  • Basic Medical Knowledge and Health Literacy

While CHWs do not diagnose or treat medical conditions, a basic understanding of healthcare concepts is essential. CHWs should possess health literacy skills to educate individuals about medical conditions, medications, preventive measures and treatment options.

Step 4: Complete an Additional CHW Training Program

  • Certification and Licensing

Now that we’ve covered the community health worker job description and education requirements, we need to talk about licensing and certification. First of all, do you need certification to practice as a community health worker? The answer depends on your location. Some states do require certification, so check local requirements to make sure you have everything needed to start practicing the profession.

This guide provides some additional information on the certification requirements by state.

  • National Certification Options

Obtaining national certification demonstrates a CHW’s commitment to professionalism and competency. The National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) offers the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) certification, which validates expertise in health education and promotion.

Additionally, the National Association of Community Health Workers (NACHW) provides the Community Health Worker Core Consensus (C3) certification. Both certifications require applicants to meet specific education and experience criteria and pass a comprehensive examination.

  • State-Specific Certification and Licensing

Several states have established certification or licensing processes for CHWs. Requirements and regulations vary by state but typically involve completing specific training programs, meeting education criteria, and passing an examination.

  • Benefits of Certification

Even if it’s not required to practice in a certain state, certification can be beneficial for people thinking about building a career in the field of community health work.

Certification offers numerous benefits for CHWs, including professional recognition, increased employability, and expanded career opportunities.

Certified CHWs often have a competitive edge in the job market and may qualify for higher-paying positions. Additionally, certification demonstrates a commitment to professional standards and ongoing professional development.

Step 5: Engage in Continuing Education Through Workshops & Webinars

To stay up-to-date with evolving healthcare practices and expand their skills, CHWs should engage in continuing education and professional development opportunities. This may include attending conferences, participating in workshops, pursuing advanced certifications, or enrolling in relevant courses offered by professional organizations, universities, or public health agencies.

Step 6: Apply to CHW Positions, Attend Interviews, and Secure Your Job

Once you have completed your education and training as a community health worker, it’s time to put your skills into action. Tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight your relevant experience and passion for community health. Prepare for interviews by researching the organization, practicing common interview questions, and showcasing your interpersonal and communication skills.

What’s the Career Outlook for Community Health Workers?

Becoming a community health worker is a great idea if you’re seeking job stability and access to professional growth opportunities.

In the period until 2031, 15,200 new career health worker jobs will become available, BLS reports. The median salary is also anticipated to grow, as employers in the field will be looking to attract top talent.

Community health workers who have completed a certification program and the ones who obtain higher education will rank among those gaining easy access to lucrative career opportunities. Also, reports suggest that those who speak at least one foreign language on top of English will also gain access to better employment options.

In the years to come, some of the potential employers that will offer community health workers the best salaries are going to include:

  • Hospitals, both state and private
  • Civic, professional and religious organizations
  • Governmental agencies
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Individual and family service providers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a more detailed state analysis as far as local employment opportunities and wages are concerned. Check out this resource to find out more about the community health worker career prospects in your area.

Community Health Worker Popular Career Specialties

Job Prospects and Employment Settings

As a community health worker, you can discover attractive employment opportunities in various fields and settings.

Here’s an overview of the most common opportunities, as well as the reasons why a person may choose each kind of employment:

  • Healthcare Facilities: Many CHWs find employment in healthcare facilities.  Hospitals, clinics, and medical centers all employ such professionals to act as mediators and enhance communication. CHWs work alongside healthcare providers to deliver patient-centered care, promote health literacy, and provide support to individuals navigating the healthcare system. CHWs may be employed in various departments, such as community health, primary care, maternity services or chronic disease management.
  • Nonprofit Organizations and Community Health Centers: Nonprofit organizations and community health centers play a vital role in addressing healthcare disparities and improving the health of underserved populations. CHWs employed in these settings often work directly with community members, conducting outreach, organizing health education programs, providing referrals and advocating for access to healthcare services. Examples of entities that employ CHWs in the non-profit field include community-based organizations, faith-based organizations and free clinics.
  • Government Agencies: Government agencies, such as state and local health departments, often employ CHWs to address public health priorities. CHWs working in government agencies may be involved in disease prevention initiatives, health promotion campaigns, data collection and community engagement efforts. They collaborate with public health professionals, policymakers, and community stakeholders to develop and implement programs aimed at improving population health.
  • School Systems: CHWs have increasingly become a valuable resource within school systems where they address the health needs of students and their families.They promote health education, conduct screenings, assist families in accessing healthcare services, and collaborate with school staff to create a healthy and supportive learning environment.
  • Public Health Departments: Public health departments at the local, state, or federal level employ CHWs to address public health priorities within the community.CHWs may be involved in disease prevention and control, health promotion campaigns, emergency preparedness initiatives, or community health assessments. They collaborate with public health professionals, community organizations, and local leaders to implement evidence-based interventions and promote health equity.
  • Long-Term Care Facilities: CHWs can also find employment in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, assisted living centers, and rehabilitation facilities. In these settings, CHWs provide personalized support to residents and their families, assisting with health education, care coordination, and navigating healthcare resources.

Career Advancement Opportunities

A community health worker’s salary depends on experience, niche specialization, and professional background. Numerous career advancement opportunities are available to those motivated enough to keep pushing forward.

A few of the main ways to achieve career advancement include the following:

Specialization and Advanced Training

CHWs can choose to specialize in specific areas of healthcare. Some of the prominent options include:

  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Chronic Disease Management
  • Mental Health
  • Substance Abuse
  • Behavioral Health
  • Psychology

Specialization may involve pursuing additional training, certifications, or advanced degrees in the chosen field. By acquiring specialized knowledge and skills, CHWs can enhance their expertise and open doors to more advanced roles within their chosen specialty.

Supervisory and Leadership Roles

With experience and professional development, CHWs can advance into supervisory and leadership positions. These roles involve overseeing teams of CHWs, providing guidance and support, coordinating programs, and collaborating with organizational leadership to shape policies and strategies.

Supervisory and leadership positions allow CHWs to have a broader impact on public health outcomes by guiding and mentoring fellow CHWs.

Research and Academia

CHWs with a passion for research and academia can contribute to the field through research studies, program evaluation and academic teaching. These professionals can collaborate with researchers, public health professionals and academic institutions to conduct community-based research, publish papers, and contribute to the evidence base supporting the effectiveness of CHW interventions.

CHWs may also have the opportunity to teach and train future CHWs in academic settings.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Community Health Worker?

Community health workers can enjoy a good work-life balance, but it can vary depending on individual circumstances, job expectations, and work environments. While some community health workers may find a healthy balance between work and personal life, others may face challenges in achieving optimal work-life balance due to factors such as workload, caseload, and organizational requirements.

It’s important to recognize that challenges may still arise. Community health workers may encounter high caseloads, demanding schedules, and the need to address urgent community needs. Striving for work-life balance and engaging in self-care practices is crucial to prevent burnout and ensure overall well-being.

Should I become a Community Health Worker?

The path to becoming a community health worker is both rewarding and challenging. CHWs have the unique opportunity to make a significant impact on the health and well-being of individuals and communities. By embracing the core responsibilities, acquiring the necessary skills, pursuing education and training, and seeking certification, aspiring CHWs can embark on a fulfilling career dedicated to improving public health and reducing health disparities.

Hopefully, this guide has shed some light on the main steps you need to complete in order to become a CHW, as well as everything to expect once you get your first job.

Obviously, requirements, career outlook and opportunities change – the healthcare field is dynamic. Keeping track of the latest updates and continuing to inform yourself will help you conquer challenges and be at the top of your game.

Also, make sure that the job is a good match to your personality and biggest strengths. While entering the field provides lucrative growth and professional stability, it’s not for everyone. Assess your career dreams, your strengths and your weaknesses. Based on these, you can easily determine the niche and the particular job that will make the most of your biggest assets and allow for a steady growth trajectory.

Careers Related to Community Health Worker

Frequently Asked Questions

How much time will I have to dedicate to becoming a successful Community Health Worker?

The length of time it takes to become a well-paid community health worker can vary depending on factors like your location, education, experience and the specific job requirements.

You will need to complete the following steps in order to secure the best job in the field:

  • Education and Training: While some positions may only require a high school diploma or equivalent, others may require additional education or certifications. Pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in public health, community health, or a related field can provide a solid foundation for career advancement and potentially higher pay. Additionally, obtaining certifications such as Certified Community Health Worker (CCHW) or other relevant credentials can enhance your qualifications.
  • Experience: Entry-level positions may offer lower salaries, but as you gain experience and demonstrate your skills, you can progress to more advanced roles with increased compensation.
  • Career Advancement: Advancing your career can lead to higher-paying positions. This may involve taking on leadership roles, pursuing additional education or certifications, and demonstrating expertise in specific areas of community health. Specializing in a particular field, such as maternal and child health or chronic disease management, can also contribute to higher pay.

After getting your high school degree, it’s a good idea to dedicate one or two years to obtaining an associate’s degree and becoming certified. If you decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to spend a few more years on your education.


What does the future look like for Community Health Worker?

The future for community health workers is promising. They play a crucial role in addressing health disparities, improving access to care, and promoting community well-being. As healthcare systems recognize the value of preventive care and community-based approaches, the demand for community health workers is expected to grow.


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