A Profession in Peril: The Realities of the Job Make It Difficult to Attract New Addiction Counselors

Article excerpt

"Help wanted: Addiction counselor to provide counseling for the city's
home-Jess; hours vary. Good writing skills and solid work ethic. Must be
state-certified. $16 per hour."

I recently answered this ad, introducing myself as a private, for-profit treatment provider with a state-certified program next door to the city's homeless shelter. I welcomed the program's HR director to our addiction treatment community and wished him the best of luck in staffing his start-up program.

He'll need more than luck. This HR director will likely find himself empty-handed after spending many days and dollars trying to recruit staff. Many resumes he'll read will be from people who have years of successful, personal recovery experience and "just want to help people." Twenty years ago, he could have hired these untrained, noncredentialed candidates and steered them toward the local community college for classes to become certified. The rank and file of addiction counseling was built on this process.

But those days are long over. Most states now demand that applicants for certification have a bachelor's degree; these degrees are earned in human services majors lacking a standardized, uniform curriculum that prepares students for entry to addiction counseling. Even the HR director fortunate to be located near a university that graduates masters-level candidates fares no better: Most newly minted master's degrees in human services also fail to deliver training in addictions that matches states' credentialing requirements. And as long as addiction treatment is viewed as an elective within human services coursework, our system of credentialing addiction treatment professionals will continue to struggle.

Revolving door

Many students are admitted to academic pro-grams to become social workers, psychologists, and mental health counselors, but few enter the addiction treatment profession, considered by many to be the lowest-paid, highest burnout human services job. At a March 9 training conference in Baltimore, Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, executive director of NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals, cited a staggering 33% turnover rate, with 5,000 new counselors needed annually to replace those leaving the field.

"Recruitment, retention, and rewards--the three Rs of our workforce--mean that state planning with key stakeholders and valuable partnerships within the field need to be addressed now," Tuohy stated.

I've had my own experience with this high turnover rate. Of the nine master's-level interns I have supervised in the past six years, only one remains in the addiction treatment field. Eight potential addiction counselors walked out of my private practice because they learned some unhappy truths about addiction treatment in Maryland. To their dismay, they discovered that even private programs must provide the state with confidential data for "outcomes research," although the data are used to award grants only to state-funded programs. They have to spend hours documenting and duplicating efforts to satisfy more regulations. They also are saddened and frustrated at how little appreciation and progress their clients demonstrate. And when they start looking for salaried, full-time jobs with benefits, they find only contractual positions offering $16 per hour with little or no benefits. …