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 substance abuse problems. These counselors often work directly with clients as well as their families, doctors, speech therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, and other service providers in order to optimize a client’s readiness for work.
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
- Assisting in the job application process
- Providing mock interviews and other application training
- Serving as an advocate in cases of employment or workplace discrimination
- Helping people with disabilities find meaningful work serves to increase their independence and social interconnectedness.
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many disabled people have pushed for greater accommodation in employment. Living with a disability is often very challenging and socially isolating. Employment helps to boost the self-esteem of those with physical and mental impairments, and helps them to play a greater role in their own care. Vocational rehabilitation counselors help their clients achieve their goals and thrive 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, where they provide job training sessions and classes with numerous students. Independent-living institutions and prisons employ counselors as well, in much the same capacity. Other counselors have a private practice or work for other community and nonprofit agencies, where services are typically provided in a more one-on-one, advisory fashion. In almost all cases, counselors must tailor their training strategies to the individual client and his or her needs. Most counselors work full time, and flexible hours and home visits are sometimes required.
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 programs generally seek applicants with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, as well as some past volunteer or internship experience.
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; assessment; rehabilitation; case management; and educational and community services. Training will involve learning how to assess and interact with clients, as well as how to navigate social welfare and legal systems. Before enrolling in a program, students should check to see if it is accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE). A degree from a CORE-accredited program opens up more career options and is guaranteed to provide the requisite training and coursework.
Graduate training may be specialized for a specific disabled population. For example, some counselors focus on assisting military veterans, whereas others serve autistic or mentally disabled clients in particular. Click here for an example of an accredited program with multiple training options.
After completing coursework, vocational rehabilitation counselors put in at least 600 hours of clinical training with a qualified rehabilitation counselor serving as supervisor. Many schools help to arrange an internship or counseling job placement for their students based on interests and availability.
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. Licensed CRCs who relocated out of state may have to take an additional exam to continue practicing in their new location.
Another option for those interested in vocational counseling work 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. An LPC is more generalized, and pertains to work beyond vocational assistance.
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. A knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act is vital for serving as clients’ primary advocate. Strong familiarity with the social welfare systems available to disabled persons is essential as well.
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. Greater education provides greater flexibility and independence. Counselors with a master’s degree or higher are most likely to be advanced to supervisory and management positions. Administrative and academic positions generally pay better and offer greater benefits than direct work with clients, though experienced professionals may open up a private practice and earn a higher income as a result.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a vocational rehabilitation counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
Salary and Job Outlook
Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections
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The median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors is $34,380, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working for state and local government programs are paid more, as are those with successful private practices. Compensation for vocational rehabilitation counselors can range anywhere from $21,200 to $59,810 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 2022 by about 20%, which is well above average job growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment settings include 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.