Careers in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling

Vocations may be referred to by various names, such as “jobs,” “careers” or “employment,” but all the titles really come down to the same thing: performing work for wages. While most adults in today’s society not only expect to find a fulfilling career, but do, many people experience difficulties in obtaining even basic gainful employment.

The inability to find work can occur for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is that the job seeker has some form of mental or physical disability. Fortunately, following the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the options for those with disabilities have expanded greatly. Vocational rehabilitation specialists play a significant role in assisting with this turnaround by helping to train people to perform meaningful work, pursue a career, and earn their own livelihood.

What Is Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling?

Vocational rehabilitation counseling has multiple facets and involves many different duties, but, at its core, the field is about helping people obtain employment who might not otherwise be able to do so. Performing purposeful work that aligns with the individual’s interests allows the person to not only support himself or herself and rely less heavily on others, but it also boosts the individual’s sense of self-worth and provides a greater sense of autonomy.

Disability can take multiple forms. In some cases, a disability may follow a tour of duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, when a soldier suffers a physical injury, such as the loss of a limb. Or, the injury may be of a mental nature, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which makes it difficult or almost impossible for the individual to cope with novel, challenging or triggering situations. Other people may suffer from psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia or Asperger’s syndrome, and need help with managing their symptoms to enable them to perform the basic tasks required by employment.

Other forms of disability include problems in a variety of areas, including, but not limited to:

  • Vision and hearing
  • Speech and communication
  • Learning
  • Mental health
  • Social and emotional disorders
  • Movement
  • Injury
  • Congenital disease

Disabilities are as wide-ranging as the individuals themselves, and they may combine in one individual in many forms; for example, one individual may have both an intellectual and a sensory disability. Part of vocational rehabilitation counseling is to assess exactly what type or types of affliction are affecting the individual and how the disability relates to his or her work performance. Knowing the precise nature of the disability enables the counselor to recommend the correct support systems, which, of course, depend on the person’s work environment.

Responsibilities of a Vocational Rehabilitation Counseor

Vocational rehabilitation specialists, or counselors, first consult with the client to determine the primary cause for the client’s inability to work. This inability may be caused by a single obvious factor, attributes that aren’t readily discernible, or a combination of both noticeable and imperceptible characteristics. After determining the main problem and how it is affecting the individual’s capacity for work – often through a process of assessing a combination of medical records, previous work records, and the current mental and physical condition of the client – the specialist can assist with job placement. Afterwards, the specialist monitors their client’s work performance, tweaks supports or employment as necessary, and continues to play an active role in the individual’s career pursuits.

In some cases, the client may not yet be ready to take on full- or even part-time work. In that case, the vocational rehabilitation counselor may help by assigning tasks and exercises to help the individual prepare for work. For example, in the case of an injury, these assignments may include physical exercises. For clients who have PTSD or other extreme fears, the recommendation may include exposure therapy, sessions in which the individual practices encountering a certain situation until a process of desensitization has occurred, and the fear is gone or at least diminished.

While helping the individual, the counselor works with other service providers. Depending on the needs of the patient, these providers vary, but they typically include medical doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists, social workers, physical and/or speech therapists, other service providers, and the individual’s own family members.

The typical duties and responsibilities for vocational specialists include:

  • Evaluating clients through aptitude tests, talk therapy, and through other means
  • Creating Individual Plans for Employment (IPEs) and amending those plans as necessary
  • Helping clients complete job applications
  • Arranging job training and placement
  • Obtaining authorizations for services
  • Putting support systems in place
  • Providing information to clients, their families, and service providers
  • Managing caseloads
  • Overseeing the caseloads of subordinates, creating schedules, and signing off on the decisions of other team members or employees
  • Writing reports, grants, requests for services or technology, and completing other documents
  • Teaching others about careers as a vocational rehabilitation specialist

Some counselors may also specialize in working with specific populations. For instance, the vocational specialist may work with specific types of disabilities, with veterans, with American Indians or Latinos, with people who speak English as a Second Language, seniors, and other cohorts.

Typical Work Environment & Occupational Challenges

Vocational rehabilitation counselors work in any number of different environments, depending upon their client’s needs, specialties, and the range of the individual’s duties and responsibilities. Some work in private practice, so their clients visit them at their offices for both their initial consultation and ongoing evaluation. Many work in hospitals or clinics, helping those recovering from physical injury to obtain employment despite their disability. Some work in schools, helping even very young students think about the types of vocations they may wish to pursue as they reach maturity. In this case, students may or may not be disabled, but thinking ahead can help avoid potential gaps in employment caused by uncertainty or inexperience as they develop.

In general, vocational counseling is a rewarding and even fun career. Counselors get the opportunity to see their clients improve, find work they love, and support themselves, all of which leads to the client’s greater sense of fulfillment and overall happiness ― a win-win for both the counselor and the client.

However, not every facet of the job is rewarding. Many clients cannot be helped, either because they lack the willingness, or they are unable to make changes in their lives. It can be hard for a vocational rehabilitation specialist to accept failure, but it is an inescapable part of the job. Moreover, the hours involved can be long and tiresome. Traveling to various locations or clients’ homes can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. However, because vocational work doesn’t require responding to crises in quite the same manner as a social worker may have to, the vocational counselor can typically adhere to a regular work schedule.

Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Salary & Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not list “vocational rehabilitation specialist” as a specific job title, but several roles are similar in both salary and outlook. For instance, rehabilitation counselors make an average $16.67 per hour, according to the BLS, which translates to about $35,000 per year. Career prospects for this field, with jobs growing at a rate of 9 percent, is faster than normal. That means that between the years 2014 and 2024, almost 11,000 new jobs were or will be added to the job market, which leaves ample opportunity for employment for those who specialize in this field.

School and career counselors, on the other hand, earn an average of $26.23 per hour, or roughly $55,000 per year. Those who want to work in schools with the disabled or non-disabled populations can expect to make a bit more than those who work in hospitals or who focus on helping those recovering from injury. The job outlook is decent, with growth at a rate of 8 percent, or average. Vocational counselors who have a psychology background can make even more, earning about $75,000 per year, with jobs growing at a rate of 19 percent, or much faster than average.

Employment outlook and compensation rates will, of course, depend on the level of education and specialization, location, duties and responsibilities, level, and other factors specific to each job.

Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling Jobs & Job Description

Vocational rehabilitation specialists work on a daily basis with disabled or otherwise compromised individuals who want to find and retain meaningful employment that allows them to support themselves. The job involves frequently interacting with clients and other service providers, communicating with families and work facilities’ personnel, managing cases and paperwork, keeping up with credentials, meeting all legal requirements governing the industry, and possessing knowledge of support software and technology. To effectively accomplish all these tasks, vocational counselors need a variety of skills and knowledge, including:

  • Knowledge of various disabilities and the best means of overcoming them in an employment situation
  • Knowledge of available community services and placement practices
  • Understanding of human psychology and counseling
  • Understanding of applicable technologies
  • Good communication and social skills
  • Ability to administer and interpret diagnostic tests, as well as to analyze data
  • Project management skills
  • Ability to provide training and guidance
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Empathy and compassion for the disabled
  • Excellent organizational skills, with the ability to keep track of multiple client cases at any given time

Vocational Rehabilitation Degrees, Education, and Training

Typically, vocational rehabilitation specialists hold a master’s degree in vocational or rehabilitation counseling, psychology, or, sometimes, social work. While a bachelor’s degree may enable graduates to find employment in the field, those who want to make the greatest impact and qualify for the best employment opportunities – and, eventually, leadership roles – will need to earn their master’s degree.

Training usually involves counseling and psychology basics, the fundamentals of assessing and responding to client needs, managing cases, providing vocational support, navigating welfare laws, garnering social support, and more. Most bachelor’s degrees take four years to earn, while, traditionally, a master’s degree requires an additional two years of study, although in some cases, the course load can be completed in a single year.

Licensing and certification requirements vary depending on state or national laws as well as the employing body. Some organizations may require additional specializations, such as an ability to speak American Sign Language, while others may ask for an internship or other apprenticeship programs to prove competency. Most graduate programs require a certain number of clinical training hours, usually around 600.

Obtaining certifications, such as the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), can expand job opportunities, especially for those who want to work for the state or federal government. These certifications must be renewed every few years. For more information, consult the board that administers the qualifying test for certification in the pertinent state.

Learn more about online counseling degrees and counseling schools.