Spring 2019

Social Workers and Social Service Workers: What’s the Difference?

Picture of person taking notes

What is a social worker?

From individuals and families to organizations and communities, social workers collaborate with their clients to address challenges through a process of assessment, diagnosis, treatment and evaluation.

What is a social service worker?

Social service workers assist clients in dealing with personal and social problems by delivering counselling, community services and social support programs.

Do you know the difference between a social worker and social service worker? This is one of the most common questions asked of the College by employers. Only College members can use the protected titles “social worker/registered social worker” and “social service worker/registered social service worker.” The College has due processes in place to ensure only College members use the protected titles.

In strictly technical terms, the difference is simple: a social worker possesses a social work class of certificate of registration with the College, whereas a social service worker possesses a social service work class of certificate of registration. However, there are also key differences, specifically with respect to requirements for entry-to-practice and scopes of practice.

Entry-to-practice requirements

Registered social workers have obtained a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree, a master of social work (MSW) degree, or both. To register as a social service worker, one must have obtained a two-year college diploma in social service work from a college of applied arts and technology (CAAT). (Alternate routes to registration exist for those able to demonstrate equivalency through a combination of academic qualifications and experience.)

Scopes of practice

The two professions can also be differentiated based on what they can and cannot do. For example:

  • Social workers can make a social work diagnosis within a relationship between a social worker and a client. (Social service workers, whose focus is on assisting clients in achieving optimum social functioning, cannot.)
  • Social workers can provide educational services to students of social work AND social service work. (Social service workers can provide these services to students of social service work only.)

Places of employment

There are also differences in social workers’ and social service workers’ typical employment settings:

  • Social workers provide services in a variety of workplace settings, from hospitals and community centres to schools and social service agencies.
  • Social service workers, on the other hand, tend to be employed in a range of settings, from group homes and shelters to income maintenance and youth programs.


The scopes of practice for social workers and social service workers can be viewed in the College’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice Handbook. For information concerning social work and social service work practice, please read the College’s Scopes of Practice Position Paper or contact the College’s Professional Practice Department at practice@ocswssw.org.