How to Become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor
Vocational rehabilitation counselors help people with disabilities live fuller, more independent lives by assisting them in securing gainful employment. Their clients are people coping with physical disabilities and injuries, mental illness, psychological disorders or those recuperating from substance abuse problems. They work directly with these clients as well as their families, doctors, speech therapists, physical therapists, psychologists and other service providers and care givers. A vocational rehabilitation counselor’s job includes the following elements:
- Assessing the client’s capabilities and limitations
- Working with the client to set goals for employment and independent living
- Arranging the necessary training and therapy to meet those goals
- Facilitating job training and placement
Helping people with disabilities find meaningful work that increases their independence and allows them to contribute to their communities is very rewarding work. Vocational rehabilitation counselors help their clients achieve those goals by arranging for the training, therapy, job skills, and support systems that lead to success.
Vocational rehabilitation counselors work in several different environments. Many work in the educational system, including elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. Independent-living institutions and prisons employ some while others have a private practice or work for other community and nonprofit agencies. Most work full time.
Most vocational rehabilitation counselor jobs require a master’s degree in vocational counseling, rehabilitation counseling, or counseling psychology. A bachelor’s degree in social services, counseling, or psychology is a good foundation for this career choice. Graduate coursework leading to a master’s degree in rehabilitative counseling can typically be completed in two years. Courses will include disability studies, the theory and practice of counseling, psychology, rehabilitation, case management, and educational and community services. Before enrolling, students should check to see if the university or online program is accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE). A degree from a CORE-accredited program opens up more career options.
After completing their coursework, vocational rehabilitation counselors put in at least 600 hours of clinical training with a qualified rehabilitation counselor. Many schools help to arrange an internship or counseling job for their students.
Licensing and/or Certification
Counselors can find employment without having a professional credential, but will broaden their opportunities by obtaining a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential. Most state and federal rehabilitation programs will only hire CRC counselors, as will be the case with other select programs.
Obtaining the CRC credential entails taking an exam administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). The exam is taken by those who have earned a master’s degree from a CORE-accredited program and who have completed 600 hours of clinical training supervised by a CRC. Graduation from a non-accredited program requires a year of CRCC-approved work experience combined with a counseling internship, or two years of CRCC-approved work experience, before the exam can be taken.
The CRC credential must be renewed every five years by retaking the exam or accumulating the specified number of continuing education hours.
Another option is to be certified as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). This involves qualifying to take a state licensing exam (usually a master’s degree and a specified number of hours of supervised clinical experience) and passing it. Be sure to check licensing regulations for counselors in the state you plan to work as they vary greatly from state to state.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Good communication and problem-solving skills are required in order to work in counseling jobs, as well as empathy and the desire to help people fulfill their goals. Counselors must also have good listening skills, compassion, and patience while working with clients.
Opportunities for Advancement
Counselors who have only a bachelor’s degree may be able to obtain employment, but they will not be able to provide nearly as many services as a counselor with a master’s degree. Counselors with more education (at least a master’s degree) and years of work experience are most likely to be advanced to supervisory and management positions.
As of 2010, the median annual salary for vocational rehabilitation counselors was $32,350. Those working for state government programs were paid more, as were those with successful private practices. Compensation for vocational rehabilitation counselors can range anywhere from $20,770 to $56,720 annually.
Institutions such as hospitals and schools that provide a wide range of services including vocational rehabilitation employ nearly a third of all counselors. Nursing facilities, residential care facilities, and state governments together employ nearly another third of the counselors.
Job prospects for vocational rehabilitation counselors are expected to increase through 2020 by about 28%, a rate nearly double that of overall average job growth. There are programs with federal and state agencies, as well as positions in hospitals, private rehabilitation agencies, and community mental health clinics. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has its own vocational rehabilitation program to help veterans with military-related disabilities find employment. Some vocational rehabilitation counselors perform contract work through their own offices or join a group practice.