Addiction counselor salary & career outlook

People familiar with shows like "Intervention" often associate substance abuse with drugs and alcohol, but addiction counselors can help patients address a wide range of vices, including gambling, food and even sex addiction. For patients and their families, the care addictions specialists provide can be truly transformative and, at times, downright life-saving. Here is a look at what addiction counselors do, how they learn their craft and what they can expect once in the field.

What do addiction counselors do?

Substance abuse counselors help patients overcome addiction and cope with the ongoing challenges of recovery. They are closely related to behavioral counselors, who address a wide range of behavioral problems. Addiction counselors can work in a variety of settings, from inpatient programs and clinics to schools. They can work with patients one-on-one or in group sessions, and in some circumstances they might even counsel patients' families. The following are just a few of the tasks substance abuse counselors often tend to, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Assessing and evaluating clients' mental and physical health, as well as their readiness for treatment
  • Developing treatment goals and plans
  • Reviewing and recommending treatment options with clients and their loved ones
  • Working with clients to identify behaviors and other challenges that can interfere with recovery
  • Teaching patients' loved ones about addiction and providing them with strategies to cope with its challenges
  • Referring clients to other resources and services as needed, including support groups
  • Participating in public outreach programs that help people identify the signs of addiction and locate treatment as necessary

The U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net OnLine reports that addiction counselors must be good listeners and effective communicators. They should be service-oriented and exhibit strong critical thinking and decision-making skills. As for the more technical, day-to-day skills required of them, those are often mastered in substance abuse counseling schools.

How to become an addiction counselor

According to the BLS, addiction counselors' education requirements range from high school diplomas to master's degrees, depending on the state and setting in which they work. All states require substance abuse counselors to be licensed to work in private practice, however, and the process usually requires the following:

  • A master's degree
  • 2000 to 4000 hours of supervised clinical experience
  • Successfully passing a state-recognized exam

Advanced certification in addiction or substance abuse counseling can enhance job prospects and the possibility of advancement within the field. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) certification, which requires graduate or continuing education in the field as well as significant experience and a passing score on a certifying exam. Licensed counselors must typically complete ongoing education courses each year in order to maintain certification.

Addiction counselors who do not intend to work in private practice need not always earn an advanced degree — or any degree at all, for that matter. O*Net OnLine reports that as of 2013, 28 percent of counselors were required to have bachelor's degrees to practice, and 16 percent were required to have some college training, though not necessarily a degree. About 23 percent of counselors needed only a high school diploma or equivalent; the rest remained unclassified. Many colleges, universities and career schools offer substance abuse counseling training. In some cases, this training can be completed at least partly online. Online graduate certificate programs also exist in this field.

Job growth for addiction counselors

The substance abuse counseling field is expected to so grow so quickly that O*Net OnLine officially recognizes it as a "bright outlook" occupation. The BLS projects that employment of substance abuse counselors will grow by 31 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, much faster than most other occupations and nearly triple the national average of 11 percent for all jobs. There are several reasons for this growth. More people are seeking treatment as addiction issues become more widely known and less stigmatized. Also, an overburdened criminal justice system is more likely to send drug offenders to treatment rather than jail. Of course, demand is stronger in some states than others. Using both federal and state-provided employment information, Projections Central estimates that employment of addiction counselors will grow the fastest in the following states between 2010 and 2020:

  • Utah: 34.4%
  • Colorado: 33.3%
  • Indiana: 29.1%

Note that no matter where they practice, addiction counselors must be properly trained. By investing in the right education, candidates can improve their job prospects dramatically, especially in states or settings that require advanced degrees or licensure.

Addiction counselor salaries

It can be difficult to predict how much an addiction counselor will earn since so many factors drive salaries. Generally speaking, however, the BLS reported a median national addiction counselor salary of $38,620 in 2013. The middle 50 percent earned between $30,890 and $48,810, and the top 10 percent in excess of $60,160. Earnings can vary from one state or region to the next, however. With this in mind, the BLS reported that the following states reported the highest mean substance abuse counselor salaries that same year:

  • Michigan: $50,890
  • Utah: $49,760
  • New Jersey: $49,460

Likewise, the following metropolitan areas also reported the highest average addiction counselor salaries in 2013:

  • Lansing-East Lansing, Mich.: $66,970
  • Springfield, Mass.-Conn.: $55,560
  • State College, Pa.: $55,010

Perhaps the biggest factors influencing substance abuse counselors' salaries, however, are training and experience. While there no substitute for experience in the field, candidates who graduate from addiction counseling schools may have an edge over lesser-trained career competition, especially when those programs include clinical components that allow students to work with real patients. Prospective students can contact substance abuse counseling schools to learn more about their options.

Sources:

Occupational Employment and Wages for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211011.htm

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 8, 2014, .bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm

Long Term Occupational Projections for Biomedical Engineers, Projections Central, http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm

Summary Report for: Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, O*Net OnLine, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1011.00