10 'helping' professions and how to train for them

helping professions

If you're not looking for just a job, but a career that makes a difference in the world, then you may be one of the millions of Americans drawn to helping professions each year. There are a number of reasons people choose helping careers: some were inspired by those who have helped them along the way, while others simply have an innate desire to help. Whatever your story, you're in good company.

"From my experience, clients who have a preference for making decisions based on feelings and values tend to seek out careers in the helping professions," says Joan Roberts, certified career management coach and founder of CareerCounseling.com. "This accounts for about half of my clients."

But while a desire to help others is an excellent starting point, these careers are often demanding, requiring more than just good intentions. Some require years of training while others call for unique characteristics, like master problem-solving skills or the ability to remain calm in a crisis.

"I think most career choices are based on personality preferences, natural talents, skills, personal experiences and exposure to a multitude of career options," says Roberts.

In order to find the right helping career for you, it's important to consider all of your options. The following careers represent a wide variety of helping professions, including some surprising options.

1. Teachers

The job: Dan Rather once said, "The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you." Teachers are the instillers of knowledge, providing students with the basic skills they need to advance their educations, launch a new career or simply enrich their lives--and that's just the beginning. Working at all levels of education, from preschool to post-graduate and from public institutions to private businesses, a teacher's primary goals is ensuring students' learning needs are met and that they walk away from the class feeling confident, knowledgeable and, one hopes, inspired. A good teacher can shape future experts; a really great teacher can influence their perspectives, passions and goals forever.

The training: Thoroughly understanding a subject is one thing; being able to convey this information to others is a true skill that requires training. While private schools or businesses can set their own requirements, public schools require degrees in education or a discipline related to your chosen subject. College professors usually hold master's or post-graduate degrees while K-12 teachers can usually get by with a bachelor's degree and a teaching credential. Some teaching licenses and degrees can be earned via online training.

Who you help: Because teaching is such a diverse field, your student demographic will depend on what and where you teach. Students can range from toddlers to senior citizens, but most will fall somewhere in the middle. In all cases, your students will be people who look to you for basic knowledge within your particular field of expertise.

What you'll make: Teachers' salaries vary with setting and subject. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median elementary teacher salary in 2010 was $54,330, while high school teachers earned a comparable $55,990--though the top 10 percent exceeded $83,230. The top-paying states for both professionals are Alaska, New York, Illinois and Connecticut, and those working for public and private schools, psychiatric or substance abuse centers and religious organizations usually fare the best.

College professors' earnings varied dramatically with subject. English professors, for instance, earned $67,820 on average while business professors earned $85,470.

Who's well-suited: "Over the years I have had several clients who have left more lucrative careers to pursue careers in teaching," said Roberts. "I believe people who were meant to be teachers will find ways to teach." Being an expert in a particular field of study is a valuable quality in a budding teacher, but it's only a start. Teachers must be excellent communicators and motivators, able to inspire trust and confidence. They must be patient and respond to students with a wide variety of needs. Most importantly, they must love what they do.

2. Nurses

The job: Nursing is perhaps one of the world's most basic helping professions: nurses protect and enhance one's health, the most essential human need. Whether they're attending a birth or ensuring a terminally ill patient is comfortable near the end of life, nurses provide basic medical care. In a way, nurses are also emotional caretakers, using education and a positive disposition to bring patients and their families comfort in what can be an otherwise stressful period.

The training: If you want to be a nurse, you have to attending nursing school. All nurses must be licensed to practice, a process requiring formal training and passing scores on licensing exams. How long this will take depends on what type of nurse you hope to become. Registered nurses (RNs), the most common type of nurse, typically earn an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing, while licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs) can get by with a one- to two-year training program. Nurse practitioners must earn master's degrees. Many nurses choose specialties, such as pediatrics, cardiology or midwifery, which allow them to help a particularl type of patient.

While online nursing schools are always a popular option, the hands-on nature of the profession requires some face-to-face instruction on campus or through a local teaching hospital.

Who you help: Nurses help anyone in need of medical assistance, which is virtually everyone at some point in their lives. Some nurses have specialties that dictate their patient demographic; pediatric nurses care for children while geriatric nurses tend to the elderly.

What you'll make: Nursing salaries vary with specialty, but improve with education and experience. According to the BLS, LPNs earned a median annual salary of $40,380 in 2010 while RNs earned $64,690 on average with the top 10 percent earning $95,130 and beyond. The BLS does not provide salary data for nurse practitioners, but according to Salary.com, these professionals earned a median annual salary of $89,454 in 2011. Perhaps the highest wage-paying nurse specialty, however, is the certified nurse anesthetist who earned an impressive median salary of $155,646 in 2011 (Salary.com). According to the BLS, the top paying states for nurses include California, Massachusetts and Hawai'i.

Who's well-suited: Great nurses are calm, cool and patient, both in crises and when tending to sometimes frightened or difficult patients. They absolutely cannot be squeamish, and must be willing to work long shifts on their feet. Second languages are a plus.

3. Social Workers

The job: Social workers provide invaluable, and sometimes lifesaving support to those in need, helping them cope and solve issues within their everyday lives. According to Roberts, this field "consistently (draws) people who want to connect with people and make a tangible difference in people's lives." They can work in a variety of specialties, including: child, family and schools; medical and public health; and substance abuse and mental health. Duties can include service matching, performing welfare checks, and counseling, but their overall goal is to ensure people are able to get the most from life, whatever their circumstances.

The training: Social workers must be licensed to practice, which means you'll need to receive some formal training. According to the BLS, most social workers earn four-year bachelor's degrees in social work or a related field, like psychology or sociology. Those who want to perform clinical work in a school or mental health facility may be required to earn master's degrees, while those in academia or research positions must often earn doctoral degrees. More social work schools than ever offer online training, but note that most will still require at least 400 hours of supervised clinical training.

Who you'll help: The beauty of becoming a social worker is that you can choose to help virtually any demographic in need. According to the BLS, social workers often help clients who face disability, life-threatening disease, social problems--such as inadequate housing--or substance abuse.

What you'll make: As with most careers, social workers' salaries vary with specialty and location. According to the BLS, mental health and substance abuse social workers tend to earn the least: their 2010 median annual salary was $41,880. Health care and public health social workers usually make the most, earning $47,230 on average with top earners' salaries extending beyond $71,970.

Some well-paying states for social workers, regardless of specialty, are: Connecticut, New Jersey, Nevada and the District of Columbia. Specialty hospitals and colleges tend to offer the best wages.

Who's well-suited: According to Roberts, those drawn to social work tend to "make feeling and value-based decisions, not only in their careers, but in most aspects of their lives." Social workers must be independent, mature and objective, even in heart-wrenching situations. In other words, they must wear their hearts on their sleeves, but must also be able to separate their personal feelings from their day-to-day work.

4. Counselors

The job: Whether they're providing career direction or helping patients cope with loss, counselors help those in need of support, rehabilitation or direction. According to the BLS, counselors tend to specialize in one of the following areas: education, marriage and family, mental health or substance abuse. Specific duties change from one specialty to the next, but every counselor's primary job is to inspire people to overcome obstacles and accomplish their goals.

The training: According to the BLS, a master's degree in counseling, psychology, education or a related field is the most common counselor training requirement, but regulations vary by state and specialty. In many cases counselors must be licensed to practice, a process requiring an exam and ongoing continuing education. While some schools offer online counseling training, most will still require some face-to-face instruction.

Who you'll help: Counselors help those in need of support or direction, which can include virtually everyone at some point in their lives.

What you'll make: Counselors' salaries vary tremendously with specialty and experience. According to 2010 data from the BLS, school counselors earned the most with a median annual salary of $53,380, though the top 10 percent earned more than $86,250. Substance abuse counselors tended to earn the least with median annual earnings of $38,120. Marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors fell somewhere in the middle. Those working in private practice, for colleges, or in specialty hospitals generally earn the most. The most financially rewarding states for counselors of all types include: New Jersey, Alaska, Maryland, Hawai'i and Wisconsin.

Who's well-suited: Often the best candidates are those who have benefited from counselors at some point in their own lives. "People choose careers that they are familiar with," notes Roberts. "I've had clients go into social services or counseling because a school (counselor) helped them when they were young."

According to the BLS, counselors should have a strong desire to help others and should be able to inspire respect, trust, and confidence. They must also be excellent communicators.

5. Psychologists

The job: Psychologists are among the most quintessential helping professionals, caring for those who are often unable to help themselves. These professionals identify, treat and prevent mental disorders and conditions. The BLS notes that clinical psychologists constitute the largest professional group within the field. While some clinical psychologists specialize in working with those with severe disorders, others help patients cope with stressful life changes, like divorce or the death of a loved one.

The training: If you want to become a clinical psychologist, you should be prepared to invest several years in your education. According to the BLS, psychology candidates fare best when they earn doctoral degrees, though master's degrees will suffice in some industrial or corporate positions. A bachelor's degree serves as a stepping stone to a higher degree, but rarely to a top position. While many psychology schools offer online training, most programs still require extensive clinical internships. All psychologists must be licensed to practice.

Who you'll help: As a clinical psychologist, you will care for anyone suffering from a mental disorder, or who must overcome personal problems in their lives. Many psychologists work in private practice, so can choose what types of patients they treat.

What you'll make: Your extensive training as a clinical psychologist can earn you an impressive salary. According to the BLS, the median annual clinical psychologist salary in 2010 was $66,810, but those at the top of the earnings ladder--the top 10 percent--earned in excess of $108,670. Those living in New Jersey, Colorado and California enjoyed the highest average salaries, as did those working in employment services, management companies and physician's offices.

Who's well-suited: Ideal psychology candidates are emotionally stable, mature and sensitive to the needs of their patients. They are good with people and are excellent communicators. Clinical psychologists are analytical in nature, a trait that helps identify and diagnose sometimes complex mental disorders.

6. Home Health Aides

The job: To say home health aides provide sick or disabled patients with basic care at home is like saying doctors save lives: it's technically true, but gives little insight into the tremendous, and often emotional effort such a feat requires, or the remarkable impact their work can have on patients and their families. Tending to those with mental or terminal illness, disabilities or even age-related discomforts, home health aides do more than just provide medical care. Other duties can include light housekeeping, bathing and clothing patients, and even preparing meals. In other words, these professionals ensure patients maintain a certain quality of life in spite of their conditions, relieving a tremendous amount of stress from both clients and their loved ones.

The training: One of the benefits of becoming a home health aide is the speed with which you can enter the profession. The BLS reports that while specific educational requirements vary from one state to the next, a few do not even require a high school diploma. Instead, home health aides master the basics in the field under other aides or nurses. The ability to speak another language and provide emergency CPR will broaden your prospects.

Who you'll help: Home health aides can tend to a wide range of patients with an equally wide range of ailments, but the elderly constitute the largest patient demographic.

What you'll make: Because home health aides receive minimal formal training, they tend to earn less than other medical professionals. According to the BLS, the median home health aide salary in 2010 was $20,560 with the top 10 percent earning a bit more than $29,390. Those with live-in positions may also have rent and food costs subsidized. Home health aides in psychiatric hospitals and government programs usually earn the most, as do those in Alaska, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Who's well-suited: Home health assisting is a solid fit for anyone who wants to help others without committing to years of school. "(This career) fulfills the need to help without having to complete extensive schooling," notes Roberts, "however it is a very demanding career." The best candidates are sensitive, mature and capable of maintaining a positive disposition under bleak circumstances.

7. Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)

The job: When medical disaster strikes, EMTs often respond first, providing life-saving treatment and stabilizing patients en route to hospitals. Duties can range from tending to minor wounds to administering CPR, but their overall goal is to keep patients comfortable and alive until doctors can tend to them. The BLS notes that there are five levels of EMTs: First Responder, EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate (2 levels) and Paramedic. Training and responsibilities increase by level.

The training: All states require EMTs and paramedics to be licensed to practice. Candidates must complete coursework, pass an exam and incur so many hours in the field before progressing to the next level. Note that online EMT and paramedic schools are sometimes an option, but they only supplement the hands-on field training required for licensure.

Who you'll help: EMTs help anyone in need of immediate medical assistance.

What you'll make: Because EMTs and paramedics have less training than many other health care professionals, they usually earn a bit less. The BLS reports that the annual median EMT salary in 2010 was $30,360, though the top 10 percent earned more than $51,370. Those working for state governments, recreation centers and colleges earned the most, as did those in Washington DC, Alaska and Hawai'i.

Who's well-suited: "Some people by design are meant to be EMTs," says Roberts. "If someone thrives on the sense of urgency, living in the moment, quick decision-making and (the desire) to help others, then they are naturally drawn to this career." Other characteristics of a great EMT include excellent dexterity, agility and physical coordination. They must also be very detail-oriented.

8. Crime Scene Investigators

The job: While police officers certainly do their part to ensure laws are enforced, crime scene investigators deserve just as much credit for keeping crime at bay. A myriad of crime scene investigation television shows, from CSI to the infamous Dexter, have driven popular interest in this field, and it's really no surprise: this can be an intensely exciting field.

Crime scene investigators fall into two categories: detectives and forensic scientists. Forensic scientists collect and analyze potential evidence, feeding their findings to detectives who use it to solve crime. Together these professionals perform a tremendous service to society.

The training: Detectives typically begin their careers as police officers, completing their agencies' training academies and working their way up the ranks. While on-the-job experience is perhaps the most valuable training detectives can receive, the BLS notes that a degree in criminal justice, criminology or police science helps you advance your career faster.

Future forensice scientists should be prepared to earn at least a bachelor's degree in forensics, biology or chemistry. Earning a master's degree will help you qualify for leadership positions while a doctoral degree is necessary to achieve academic or research positions.

While some crime scene investigation schools offer online training, expect to complete a tremendous amount of hands-on training in the classroom, lab or field.

Who you'll help: Crime scene investigators help crime victims and their families, but also their communities as a whole by preventing future crime.

What you'll make: Crime scene investigation can be both a personally and financially rewarding career, especially for detectives who, according to the BLS, earned a 2010 median annual salary of $68,820, with the top 10 percent exceeding an impressive $119,320. Because forensic scientists often enter their field straight from college rather than through professional advancement, they tend to earn less than detectives--$51,570 on average, to be precise. Both detectives and forensic scientists working for the federal government make the most, as do those living in Washington DC, Virginia and Delaware.

Who's well-suited: While some people seem to have a natural knack for solving crime, there are a few additional characteristics that can help you excel in this field. "These people tend to like the science, fact-finding and problem-solving parts of their jobs, as well as knowing that they are making a difference by helping to find answers," says Roberts.

9. Police Officers

The job: "To serve and protect," the long-standing motto of law enforcement officers across the nation, embodies everything noble about this helping profession. Dedicated to protecting citizens' safety and rights, police officers put their lives on the line to better their communities. Whether they work for a city or country office, a state-level office or a federal department, law enforcement officers share the same mission: to protect citizens from harm and to ensure justice is done.

The training: Law enforcement training requirements vary from one department to the next. Those working for local or statewide offices receive most of their training through department-wide police academies, though an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice or police science helps. Those pursuing federal positions are typically required to earn at least bachelor's degrees in a discipline like criminal justice or political science. In some cases military training can replace formal education.

What you'll make: According to the BLS, the median police officer salary in 2010 was $53,540, though the highest 10 percent earned in excess of $83,510. State governments, local governments and hospitals paid the most on average, as did employers in New Jersey, California and Washington DC.

Who you'll help: Police officers help everyone within their jurisdictions, but especially crime victims.

Who's well-suited: The BLS reports that most civil service organizations require candidates to be US citizens, at least 21 years of age, and in excellent physical condition. They must have keen vision and hearing and fast reflexes. Other desirable traits include a strong attention to detail and a passion for serving others. "I have found that those drawn to the 'helping' side of law enforcement will often be found in community and school policing positions," notes Roberts.

10. Computer support and hardware repair technicians

The job: While computer support and repair professionals probably aren't an obvious addition to a list of traditional helping professions, anyone who has battled computer woes in the middle of a major project can appreciate the tremendous service they provide. Offering technical support and recovering or fixing data or hardware, a computer or hardware repair specialist is your best friend when computer disaster strikes.

The training: While many computer support and repair specialists are at least partially self-taught, the BLS notes that employers prefer to hire those with certificates, associate degrees or, especially, bachelor's degrees in information technology or a related discipline. Additional professional certifications are always a plus, giving you a valuable edge in a competitive job market. An increasing number of professionals complete online computer support and repair training, though hardware-oriented disciplines will likely require some classroom instruction.

What you'll make: BLS data shows that the median computer support specialist salary in 2010 was $44,300, though the top 10 percent earned more than $72,690. According to Global Knowledge's 2011 IT Skills and Salary Survey, however, those with professional certifications can earn considerably more. Specialists working for banks, natural gas distributors and computer equipment manufacturers tended to earn the most, as did those living in Massachusetts, Washington DC and Connecticut.

Who you'll help: Computer support and repair techs can help virtually anyone and everyone who depends on computers in any way; in other words, most of us.

Who's well-suited: "Some people love technology and are drawn to this profession," notes Roberts. Computer support and repair specialists should be analytical and math-oriented, exhibiting excellent problem-solving skills. They must also have a knack for relaying highly technical, complicated information to clients in a way they understand.

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