Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Substance Abuse Counselor

Created by careersinpsychology

If you are considering a career as a Substance Abuse Counselor, you have chosen a field which is earmarked by the United States Bureau of Statistics for outstanding growth projections. While the average rate of growth for employment in other fields is 5%, the increase in employment for Substance Abuse Counselors is 22%. That is one of the highest projected growth increases of any occupation listed in the “U.S. Occupational Outlook Handbook.”

In 2021, there were 351,000 substance abuse, behavioral, and mental health counselors employed in the United States. By 2031, the government has predicted there will be 428,500. Because of retirement, turnover, and the need for more counselors, the BLS predicts that there will be about 43,600 job openings in this profession every year through 2031.

A recent issue of U.S. News & World Report ran an article, “The 100 Best Jobs” wherein it ranked jobs according to salary and employment potential. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling ranked as #53 in the nation and #5 in the category of “Best Social Service Jobs.”

One of the reasons for the predicted growth in the field is because the Affordable Care Act is now requiring insurers to cover mental health issues in proportion to the medical coverage they provide. This means that individuals needing help in the area of substance abuse are now covered under their health care policies. (Many of these qualifying individuals could not previously have sought out help due to the prohibitive cost of counseling and treatment.)

Another factor of the profession growing at an abnormally high rate is a function of the penal system. As prisons continue experiencing overcrowding; judges and magistrates are ordering drug abuse offenders to enter and complete drug rehabilitation programs. This is fueling a demand for Substance Abuse Counseling as an alternative to incarceration. One of the drug offenders sentenced to rehabilitation in a drug and alcohol facility is Greg M.

“I had been a lot of bad places and done a lot of bad things. I got lucky because the judge ordered me to go to rehab instead of jail. I got so much help and I got on my feet. I haven’t used any drugs or alcohol for 8 months and I don’t ever want to use again. I had great counselors where I was, they helped save my life.”  Greg M.

What Are the Education Requirements for Substance Abuse Counselors?

The education path for a substance abuse counselor commonly begins with a Bachelor's degree, and is then followed with a master's or doctorate level degree in counseling.

Counseling Educational Track
Education Requirements Education Length Available Programs
Undergraduate Work Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling 4 Years Online or Campus
Graduate Work Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling 5-6 Years Online or Campus
PHD or Doctoral Work Earn a Doctorate in Counseling 7-8 Years Online or Campus

A degree in substance abuse counseling is the best option to begin your career.

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Where Is a Substance Abuse Counselor Most Likely to Find Employment?

In the field of Substance Abuse Counseling, a distinction must be made between the various levels of jobs commonly referred to as “counselors.” Each treatment facility has its own personnel titles assigned by their perspective human resource departments. That means an entry-level employee with a high school diploma and experience might be deemed a “counselor” in some settings, where in other settings the term “counselor” would only be used for someone with a Master’s Degree. It’s important to note that statistical data with regards to income and salary are quite possibly indicating an average for all titles, at all facilities; or for those jobs requiring a Master’s Degree or a Ph.D.

While each facility is unique in its structuring of personnel, most require entry level employees (employees with or without a high school diploma) to have personal experience with the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol. They require that the employee have abstained from drug or alcohol use for a period of time; typically 2-3 years of consecutive abstinence. This unique experiential requirement is an off-shoot of the original 12 Step Program’s belief that only an alcoholic who has recovered can help another alcoholic rehabilitate. Mavry Pearce is a counselor in a privately run residential recovery “home” for women dealing with drug and alcohol issues.

“I was so excited to get this job! At first I didn’t have any college but I had just gotten my 2 year chip for being clean for 24 consecutive months, so they hired me. I wanted to make more money and have more responsibility so I found a college that accepted me and I could go while I was working. I haven’t finished my first year yet but I love it and I know this is the way I’m going to better myself and have a really good life.”  - Mavry Pearce

  1. Treatment Centers: Substance Abuse Counselors are needed for all types of positions within a designated rehabilitation program. The jobs can range from monitoring small group discussions to actual one-on-one Substance Abuse Counseling. Each job will have its own educational requirements; they may, however share the same title.
  1. Hospitals: Public and Private: As the new laws regarding mental health care become pervasive, institutions offering medical care will have an increased demand for mental health professionals. This includes Urgent Care facilities, Clinics, and Medical Groups.
  1. School Districts: With the new resource of mental health care coverage, school districts may begin to hire Substance Abuse Counselors (with a Master’s Degree) for children at high-risk. These counselors would not replace the School Counselor; they would simply specialize in the area of drug and alcohol abuse by minors. Communities might view this as a preventative measure which would reduce crime. It also would be convenient for the children to receive the counseling while at school; it could be worked into their schedule without burdening the child’s immediate family.
  1. Methadone Clinics: There are a variety of positions in a methadone clinic, one of which is Substance Abuse Counselor. These institutions are regulated by the government and the workers meet specific standards.

Ways for a Substance Abuse Counselor to Increase Desirability as a Job Candidate

Education/Experience: Employers enjoy hiring people who know what they’re doing. Those who do know what they are doing have either an education, experience or both. The Substance Abuse field is unique in that an individual can actually enter the field with very little education if they have the requisite experience in overcoming addiction. Someone who has been clean and sober for at least 2 years is seen as a person with valuable knowledge.

Ways for Substance Abuse Counselors to Increase Their Salaries Through Education

Education: Earning a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree or even a Ph.D. in Substance Abuse Counseling is the best way to increase your salary. There are many colleges currently offering the necessary classes; many of which you can attend while working. In the field of Substance Abuse, the highest paying jobs are the ones that require degrees from institutions of higher learning.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for substance abuse counselors are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.

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