CHW Career Paths

Career Paths: Why Develop Careers for Community Health Worker Employees

Developing a custom career path for every one of your community health workers (CHWs) inspires them to do useful work and keep building skills for improvement.

Investing in setting clear career paths for your team pays off by retaining your quality employees who strive to meet the goals you set for them and even excel.

Whether you’re starting a new CHW program or moving into a new phase with one you’re already running, read on to learn:

  • What career paths are, especially for CHWs
  • How you can benefit from them
  • Tips on developing career goals

What Is a Career Path?

A career path is a professional development program that your CHWs (or any other employee) can follow to keep advancing at your agency. Career paths are made up of short-term goals and long-term goals that help keep your team on track and break their trajectory into manageable chunks.

Career paths for the CHWs who work for you should be unique to each individual. They should reflect the goals and skills of each person and they should also fit the needs of your agency. For example, you may want to set up a career path to meet a future need for an upcoming initiative or meet the requirements of a funding source. Plan ahead by creating a job description for each step of the path.

Whatever path you build will start at the low level of your CHW and give them step-by-step instructions for moving up to a higher position.

How You Benefit from Setting Career Paths

CHWs will move on to new positions, some will get promoted into new jobs, and new people will want to enter the field and join your team. It’s helpful for agencies like yours to understand where and how to recruit or train for community health services careers. It’s also important to know how to encourage career growth along a rewarding path for employees who are more experienced in the field.

Nudging your staff to perform better is a big reason to set them on a career path. Also,

  • Creating a structure lets you tell your CHWs exactly what kind of core competencies, experience and other knowledge they need to move up
  • It’s a good message that you care about your hires
  • You can attract better talent if your CHWs know there’s a place for them to advance
  • The CHW job has a high burnout rate. You can help keep your team engaged so they can move into other positions when they need to
  • Given that the CHW job title is relatively new in the US compared with other job titles, such as care coordinators, case managers, or even promotores, a defined career ladder can help both you and your CHWs find a way forward.

As need for this role keeps growing, CHWs can not only increase the health knowledge of their community members but also increase their own reach to more people and other job opportunities.

Creating a CHW Career Foundation

CHWs, as those in any field, need certain background experiences, skills, and knowledge to be successful. Some of these are soft skills that make a person well-suited to the job and some are hard skills that are part of a CHW core competencies program.

These are some of the skills you might review as a hiring managers or CHW supervisor:

Soft Skills for Community Health Workers

  • Being friendly and open
  • Having empathy
  • Active-listening skills
  • Respect and non-judgmental attitudes
  • Good verbal communication
  • Sensitive to challenging experiences

Hard Skills (Core Competencies) for Community Health Workers

  • Advocacy Skills/Capacity Building Skills
  • Care Coordination or Service Coordination and System Navigation
  • Communication Skills
  • Cultural Humility/Cultural Responsiveness
  • Education and Facilitation Skills
  • Evaluation and Research
  • Experience and Knowledge Base
  • Individual and Community Assessment and Direct Services
  • Interpersonal and Relationship-Building Skills
  • Outreach Skills, Methods and Strategies
  • Professional Skills and Conduct

CHWs are employed in every state of the US (except South Dakota, for which no data is available), according to the BLS. Each state has independent job requirements, which vary from college degrees that take multiple years to complete to on-the-job training. Some states require certification, and some employers require certificates of completion to show completed training requirements. You can read more about requirements where you are to get a feel for how these core competencies change.

Some people favor jobs more because of their personal attributes. Others look for ways to gather core skills and then build on to them to earn a professional specialty. Managers like you should think about who the individual is and what their tendency is when you’re hiring and creating a career path at your agency.

Below, read some CHW job progressions, specific roles, responsibilities, and it all fits into a CHW career path.

How Can You Provide a CHW Career Path?

Creating a career path for your CHWs helps you recruit qualified workers and also helps you hold on to them when they decide they’d like to expand from their entry role. This will prevent them from being hired away by a new organization or out of your department.

One of the best ways for CHWs to grow their career in community health is by understanding the different roles that are out there and developing skills that align with them.

CHW Career Growth
Community Health Worker Career Path

Entry-Level: CHW, Promotores, or CHRs

CHWs are on the front line, working directly with clients or patients and responding to their needs. Training requirements depend on individual employers and state requirements, but it usually takes around two years to be a certified CHW.

A person’s decision to stay in a CHW role doesn’t need to be short-term. You can encourage your CHWs to enter as a CHW and stay a CHW for many years. Make sure stakeholders have adequate funding that builds a long-lasting program.

Why might CHWs decide to stay a CHW?

  • They have meaningful relationships with their clients
  • They’ve invested in and developed a deep understanding of the community and resources
  • They’re included in programs that they help build, launch and maintain
  • You offer recognition for achievements
  • You supply bonuses and pay increases to make sure CHWs feel rewarded.

Mid-Level: Health Advocates, Care Coordinators, CNAs, Health Educators

The next step require some specialization or extra training. They still work one-on-one with clients and patients, but they may have some additional subject-matter expertise that helps them handle more specific patient requirements or work in more clinical settings.

CHWs can move into a role with more specialization. Health advocates, care coordinators, case managers and CNAs who’ve been trained as CHWs work better with an organization and patients to find and deliver care.

Managerial: CHW Supervisors, Managers, Social Workers, Nurses

These mid-level or managerial positions serve as team leads in an agency. They supervise CHWs as well as work with their own clients or patients. However, more of their working day is put toward administration and working with a larger multi-disciplinary team.

Some CHWs will take a job with more leadership potential where they offer training, mentorship, and advice to their peers. A pathway might look like this:

  1. Entry-level CHW: works with patients
  2. Senior CHW: works with patients, mentors new hires
  3. CHW Supervisor: works with staff, hires, works closely with partners

A CHW from there may grow to be someone with less direct content with clients and patients and more program or team management.

FREE WEBINAR: How to Hire Great Community Health Workers

Everything you’ll need for a successful CHW program, from hiring your first community health worker to the best retention strategies.

This article was originally published Dec. 11, 2020, at 8:00 am. It was updated Nov. 5, 2021.