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How to Become a Community Health Worker: Education Requirements & More

If you want to become a community health worker but don’t know where to start, keep reading. We’ll break down community health worker education requirements, skills, salary outlook, and more.

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If there was one positive side effect to the devastating COVID pandemic, it’s that it shone a spotlight on the imperative role of community health workers.

Those serving in this vital role help connect people to life-saving vaccines, provide access to healthcare for all, employ tactful cross-cultural communication to educate and empower others, and advocate for important health equity initiatives.

“A community health worker is more than a job,” Honey Estrada, president of the North Carolina Community Health Worker Association, told North Carolina Health News. “It’s who we are.”

Are you driven to help others navigate healthcare challenges? Do you feel passionate about providing accessible, culturally sensitive health education? Are you committed to advocating for the health and safety of individuals and communities? If that’s “who you are,” as Estrada suggests, you may find a career as a community health worker (CHW) deeply rewarding.

In this guide, we’ll explore what this career entails, the educational paths into it, and the salary potential it promises. Keep reading to channel your compassion, resourcefulness, and leadership skills into a meaningful future as community health worker.

Step 1: Meet Necessary Education Requirements

Let’s begin by addressing the most fundamental requirement for an aspiring community health worker: education. Fortunately, the academic paths to this role are as varied as the tasks you’ll perform on a day-to-day basis. While you’ll need to have graduated high school — during which time you can start preparing yourself for a healthcare career — that’s the only real requirement. From there, you can tailor your education to match your interests and career goals.

CHWs often earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field, but this is optional. In fact, many community health workers earn an undergraduate degree in a program dedicated to helping others that seems on the surface to have little to do with community health. Successful candidates in these roles often have a background in law and advocacy, business, economics, or education.

A master’s degree in healthcare is also optional, though community health workers who’ve successfully completed graduate school typically make more money than those who hold only a bachelor’s degree. The University of San Diego online points to a career as a biostatistician (a position that requires a master’s degree) as an example of a high-earning CHW role. Another master’s degree that will prepare you for a lucrative CHW career is a Master of Science in Nursing.

Step 2: Get Experience and Certification

While education alone can prepare you for a rewarding career as a CHW, it’s typically a combination of education and experience — which sometimes includes certification — that will make you more competitive as a candidate. Although experience and certifications are not required, they can help you achieve your professional and financial goals more easily.

Acquiring both on-the-job, practical experience and academic instruction will give you a tangible and theoretical understanding of your function as a future CHW. Much of your training will be supervised by experienced CHWs who can model best practices and provide insights into realistic job expectations.

As a future health advocate, you may want to consider earning additional certifications as a means of standing out from your peers. According to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, “A growing number of states are developing or considering a certification program for community health workers (CHWs).” Begin by checking if your state requires certification. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider specializing in an area of interest related to healthcare, such as a nursing certification.

Regardless of your state’s certification requirements, it will be helpful to get up to speed on any and all industry guidelines, such as the nursing code of ethics.

Step 3: Explore Specializations and Apply to Opportunities

Now that we’ve explored the ideal academic and experiential aspects of a community health worker’s background, it’s time to use this knowledge to consider the positions you’ll be qualified to pursue.

According to Talance, a non-profit provider of community health training and support, CHWs often work at or with the following facilities and institutions: state and local governments, clinics and hospitals, outpatient care centers, insurance companies, nursing care facilities, nonprofit groups, and faith- and community-based groups. Although this is not a comprehensive list, it provides a helpful snapshot of potential healthcare-centric work environments.

Moreover, these work environments do not limit what you can study or the niche of community health in which you can work — you can and should specialize in topics that speak to your passions. Maybe you’re driven, for example, to advocate for families based on your own background or interests. If so, you may consider pursuing employment at a family service agency. Alternatively, many students transition to roles as educators or researchers after studying public health as an undergraduate.

Regardless of your area of specialization or field of interest, community health workers are in increasingly high demand — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects their employment will grow by 14% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. With this in mind, don’t forget to be your own career advocate and strategically navigate your healthcare job offers by choosing an employer worthy of your talents and negotiating a fair employment contract.

Best Bachelor’s Degrees to Become a Community Health Worker

If you’re one of the many students interested in a future role as a community health worker, you already know that pursuing a bachelor’s degree can stand out from the pack. The best part? You can pursue any number of degrees related to allied healthcare to do so. The following list, while not comprehensive, includes some of the most common bachelor’s degree options that will prepare you for this meaningful career.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Earning a nursing degree will undoubtedly prepare you for a role as a community health worker. Increasingly, online BSN programs are cultivating the next generation of CHWs. Nursing education prepares future practitioners by providing core healthcare, communication, and critical thinking skills, as well as a background in ethics and leadership.

Health Sciences

A bachelor’s degree in health science provides students with a fundamental understanding of data analysis, healthcare delivery, strategic planning, as well as the financial and business aspects of the healthcare industry. As a health sciences student, you’ll be steeped in research. As such, you’ll develop a deep understanding of scientific concepts that will equip you with the skills to be a strong community health advocate prepared to teach and empower clients.

Healthcare Administration

If you’re a natural leader who also enjoys the technical aspects of operations and planning, a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration will allow you to play to your strengths and lay the foundation for a career in a community health role. You’ll learn how to navigate the complexities of the healthcare system (and advocate for others within it), and explore the unique regulations, challenges, laws, and ethical considerations inherent to this evolving field.

Human Services

The world is a complex, interconnected web of cultures, communities, and individuals. Experts in how human systems interact understand this and make exceptional community health workers as a result. A bachelor’s degree in human services can teach you about group dynamics, organizational structures, and the social conditions that impact human conditions.

Social Work

Never before has the need for compassionate, sensitive social workers in the healthcare field been more pressing, making a degree in social work ideal for future community health workers. You’ll bring an awareness of mental health’s impact on individuals and families as well as an overarching understanding of policymaking to the role.

Responsibilities & Skills of Community Health Workers

Regardless of the educational pathway you follow to become a community health worker, you’ll be required to perform a number of common responsibilities once you begin your career. To do so, you’ll need to have mastered certain skills that will help you serve the populations with whom you work.

Advocate for Policies That Support Community Health

As a community health worker, you’ll be focused on achieving health equity by advancing the delivery of healthcare to underserved populations. This often involves advocacy at the local, state, and even national level, working with community organizations, non-profits, and government agencies to create fair legislation that makes care accessible.

Relevant Skill: Networking

Because you’ll be working collaborating and coordinating with so many different players in the healthcare landscape — from private to public entities and grassroots organizations to large and influential NGOs — networking is an imperative skill. You’ll need to listen well, ask questions, cultivate relationships, and maintain a bank of connections and resources.

Educate Community Members on Health Issues

The work of a community health worker often involves teaching. This includes both personalized communication — such as showing a pregnant mother how to access important prenatal resources— and generalized instruction, such as healthcare forums and community seminars. Knowing how to effectively customize your messaging and curriculum to your audience will serve you in this role.

Relevant Skill: Communication & Cultural Sensitivity

The work of a CHW is, at its core, about communication. You’ll be responsible for receiving and delivering messages constantly, asking clarifying questions, and distilling important information. Because you’ll be working with a broad range of people from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, it’s important to have a strong grasp of cultural sensitivity. Essentially, the “how” of what you communicate is as important as — if not more important than — the “what.”

Facilitate Communication Between Patients and Providers

The healthcare landscape is rocky, often treacherous terrain for those who are unfamiliar with it. Much of your work as a community health worker will involve acting as a liaison between patients, providers, and social services, translating difficult messages, ensuring proper actions are taken, and creating a roadmap to proper care and optimal outcomes.

Relevant Skill: Persistence

“Follow up” will become your favorite piece of workplace jargon —you’ll be advising clients to do so, will frequently type it in emails, and employ it in many of the copious phone calls you’ll make on behalf of others. This requires stamina and persistence. If you’re a patient person who doesn’t give up on a goal, you’ll be sure to do well.

Navigate Available Resources

When it comes to pressing healthcare questions and issues, the answers are out there — it’s just a matter of finding them. Every day, you’ll access your vast network, research concerns independently, and try to connect the numerous dots that punctuate the healthcare system.

Relevant Skill: Organization & Critical Thinking

In your role as a community health worker, it’s likely you’ll be helping multiple clients at a time, each of whom will have their own unique needs — meaning you’ll need to keep everything straight for your own sanity and for the wellbeing of those you’re helping. Organizational skills are paramount, as is the ability to ask questions and uncover the best answers based on available information.

Provide Health Screenings

While medical practitioners are typically responsible for performing screenings, community health workers play a vital part in the process. They often reach out to target populations to ask about risk factors for certain conditions, gather data, and connect at-risk members of the community with life-saving screening procedures. The CDC reports that engaging CHWs to reach out to low-income women in Nevada increased screening for breast and cervical cancer by one-third.

Relevant Skill: Adaptability

In the day-to-day role of a community health worker, no two days are the same. Adaptability is key to managing the wide array of responsibilities that accompany the position, from reaching out to community members to fielding questions and assuaging patients’ fears. To succeed, you’ll need to be able to roll with the punches without letting the variability of your job keep you from providing an invaluable community resource.

Career and Salary Outlook for Community Health Workers

A quick review of recent data illustrates why community health workers are in such high demand: The World Health Organization estimates that globally, we’re short approximately 7.2 million healthcare workers, and that number is expected to widen to 12.9 million by 2035. In light of this drastic shortage, the personal assistance provided by CHWs is truly invaluable — and in high demand.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects 77,600 openings for this role in the U.S. alone, a 21% increase between 2020 and 2030. To add context, the average percent change across all occupations in the same 10-year span is 7.7%, meaning the demand for this role outpaces average occupational growth three times over.

And while the roles filled by community health workers vary extensively, so does the pay. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides an aggregate median income of $46,190 for CHWs, though those with more experience can expect to make well beyond that figure. Additionally, the median salary for CHWs in roles that require graduate degrees make far more than the national average. For example, someone working in community health who continues their education and becomes qualified to serve as a medical director makes an average of $324,000 per year.

Overall, when it comes to the field of community health, you’ll find a wide range of both salaries and opportunities.

AreaOccupationBaseProjectionChangePercent ChangeAverage Annual Openings
United StatesCommunity Health Workers64,10077,60013,50021.1%8,600

Source: Projections Central

AreaOccupationMedian90th Percentile
United StatesCommunity Health Workers$46,190$73,730

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics