A Look Forward at The Counseling Job Market

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Teen speaking to attentive counselor

The economy has largely recovered from the downturn suffered in the Great Recession, but the current jobs picture still can be a bit of a puzzle for students to figure out. Yet one thing qualified mental health counselors can peg their career ambitions to is the fact there always will be a client base that will need their therapeutic services. The enduring need for the person-to-person interaction that counselors engage in likely will be in demand always.

This probability doesn’t mean, however, that the job market for counselors is so bountiful recruiters are knocking down doors to hire every qualified individual. To be prepared, counselors will need to consider many aspects of the industry’s jobs outlook. For instance, even though there might be a number of actively recruited open positions, a shortage in the talent pool can constrain opportunities and otherwise affect how counselors search for a job. Increasing expectations and qualifications from employers may also change counselors’ job hunting experiences.

Still, counselors have advantages to counter these obstacles. For instance, their skills and abilities are in demand across a number of varied settings like health care, education, government, family, marriage, addiction and mental health. The specializations available to counselors also can augment job searches, as particular fields may increase in demand along with macro social and economic trends.

Another way counselors look to improve their attractiveness to employers is pursuing further education to earn an advanced degree. An online program, like Bradley University’s Master of Arts in Counseling, is one option that offers flexibility for individuals currently in a full-time job.

Growth in counseling outpaces national average

Counselors have found a particularly open jobs market lately. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupation of mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists (jobs, which it notes, carry a typical entry-level degree of a master’s) is expected to grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024. The average national growth rate is 7 percent, underlining just how well-positioned counselors are in the jobs market.

BLS further found mental health counselors, in particular, stand to gain the most, as those positions are expected to grow 20 percent. Growth in marriage and family therapist positions is projected at 15 percent over the 10-year period, while the average for general “counselors, social workers and other community and social service specialists” is projected at 15 percent — still double that of the national average of 7 percent.

BLS attributes its growth predictions to two central factors, among other variables:

  • An influx of newly insured patients thanks to health care reform, legislation that also required plans to cover treatment for mental health conditions the same as chronic diseases.
  • Greater numbers of military veterans who are expected to seek mental health treatment in the next decade.

Counseling-related jobs also factor heavily into U.S. News and World Report’s 100 Best Jobs list for 2017. Psychologist, which the publication notes is the top counseling job with a doctoral degree, is ranked No. 31 on the list, with a 1.2 percent unemployment rate. Other jobs that appear on the list include:

  • Marriage and family therapist — No. 51
  • Clinical social worker — No 62.
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor — No. 74
  • Child and family social worker — No. 96
  • Mental health counselor — No. 97

Jobs market conditions may tighten

While the overall jobs picture for professional counselors is an optimistic one, certain fluctuations in the market may lead to difficulties for applicants and employers alike. Primarily, job conditions may be affected by a trending shortage in mental health counselors, which may be exacerbated further by an aging population.

This shortage was exposed when the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) conducted a modeling to predict supply and demand of counselors from 2013 to 2025. HRSA used two models: one plotted growth when supply and demand were assumed to be in equilibrium; the other was adjusted for the 2013 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey, which found up to 20 percent of the U.S. population at the time reported a behavioral health disorder they did not seek treatment for. Given the stigma associated with revealing and seeking treatment for mental health disorders, which is ebbing, the second HRSA model more genuinely reflects the state of mental health services. Under those pretenses, the second model found the supply of counselors would fall 29,630 positions short of reaching demand. However, HRSA noted that shortfall only would be reached if every single person living with a mental health complication sought care. Still, the realistically possible extent of the shortage demonstrates likely challenges in the job market for counselors.

Geography also affects labor market conditions. Regarding the shortage, the state of Minnesota has been hit particularly hard by the shortage. The Star Tribune reported in 2015 on a “critical shortage” of mental health counselors. The newspaper said 74 of Minnesota’s 87 counties had been federally designated as “mental health professional shortage areas,” and the state vacancy rate was 18 percent — the average for all occupations was 2.8 percent. The state had termed its mental health situation a “system in crisis” as early as 2003.

The impact, the Star Tribune reported, was felt most intimately when recruiting failures forced the closure of a mental health counseling center and intensive treatment center for severely traumatized children and adolescents.

It may seem a surplus of counselors means more jobs than they can handle, but the realities of a shortage impact everyone along the spectrum of treatment, counselors included. This fact was acutely seen when Oregon’s office of the secretary of state recently released an audit that found state human services employees felt they did not have enough tools and resources for their jobs. High levels of stress and diminished perceptions of hiring efforts also were found in the survey, as were sentiments that counselors were underpaid.

Effects of policy and social trends signal need for counselors

The steady need for counseling is supported by the evolving social, economic and political worlds. The jobs outlook for counselors is largely, shortage notwithstanding, because of the changes in everyday life that create new needs for counseling.

Generational and societal attitudes also have contributed to greater demand for mental health treatment. More young people and those who belong to a once largely silent group (such as members of the LGBT community) have spoken out and advocated for mental health awareness, which has led to more individuals seeking treatment. A 2012 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey found 27 percent of college students said they lived with depression, 24 percent said bipolar disorder and 11 percent said anxiety, among others with different complications. Yet at the time, 50 percent of respondents disclosed their condition; however, a main reason they did so was to receive clinical support.

A gap between demand and available services exists. Using information from 50 university campuses across the nation, STAT, an investigative news source on health and medicine, found schools are routinely plagued with long wait times for seeing a counselor, a situation most apparent in the largest institutions. STAT noted, for instance, that in Florida, where legislators have sought millions more for hiring counselors, the University of Florida has up to a two-week wait time. At Indiana University, the ratio of undergraduates to mental health professional was 1,535:1, and wait times could stretch to three weeks. This situation was not limited to large public schools: Wait times at Brown University could reach two and a half weeks.

Another trend in American life that has created a need for counselors is the mounting opioid crisis. This need becomes even more pronounced because several rural communities, which are historically underserved by social and other services, have been seriously afflicted and may lack professional counseling services. The need is so great that police officers have had to step in to serve as addiction counselors when not enough qualified mental health counselors are available, according to The Washington Post. Furthermore, Pew Charitable Trusts cited U.S. Health and Human Services statistics finding half of the 2.2 million needing opioid treatment seek it, meaning greater demand for counseling services as the crisis deepens.

Counselors will be in demand as mental health needs emerge

Overall, the jobs outlook for counselors is full of opportunity and growth. Expectations are that counselors will see a particularly fast rate of growth as more social, economic and political factors influence how people seek treatment and how many of them do so. Still, counselors need to be observant of particular challenges (a shortage of talent) when considering the future of the jobs market.

As a means to enhance their value on the market, counselors may want to investigate what pay and positions are possible with the addition of an advanced degree. The online Master of Arts in Counseling program at Bradley University is designed to facilitate online studies to help accommodate those already in a job.


Recommended Reading

A Career in Counseling: A Closer Look at Areas of Specialization

Basic Listening Skills for Counselors

Bradley University Online Counseling Program