December is here, a time of year (along with the months of May and August) when many colleges and universities hold commencement. The prospect of completing a hard-earned master’s or doctoral degree in counseling is both awesome and daunting. Rightly, graduates are proud of the time and personal and financial investments they have put into earning their degrees. We know that counselors spend roughly four years on their undergraduate degrees and then an average of three years on their master’s degrees.
Even after this robust educational preparation, counselors who wish to become licensed spend another two to three years working under supervision. In addition, counselors sometimes work to obtain certifications in their specialty areas or to become eligible for employment in various settings. We are a well-prepared group of professionals!
We are also in high demand, with severe shortages of behavioral health providers in some states (see “Maldistribution: Mental health care in America,” an online exclusive at CT Online). Although we all know that our profession is robust and that we need to continue to educate our growing behavioral health workforce, there is an important gap. To illustrate my point, I want to share an email that I received:
“I’ve noticed something happening with people graduating from the counseling program, not only at my school but all over the state. I’ve noticed many people graduate and are unable to pursue licensure because they can’t afford supervision or they need a full-time job so they can have medical insurance. I’ve noticed people using the school’s insurance and then panicking when they graduate because they can’t go without insurance and they can’t get a full-time position as a counselor intern until they secure a supervisor and get their license, which can take weeks/months. I would love to do advocacy work for this issue, but I don’t know where to begin. I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction? I don’t know if I need to speak to legislators or the school or the board or the ACA.”
Unfortunately, emails like this one are not uncommon. We have many graduate students and new professionals who are concerned about the prospect of launching their careers. In addition to the practical barriers related to employment, finances and medical insurance, there are the complexities of pursuing licensure or certification, including obtaining supervision.
As a counselor educator and supervisor, I am keenly aware of this pressing issue. In fact, this year, Thelma Duffey is chairing a task force to examine ways ACA can support new professionals and early career counselors. The creation of this task force was partly inspired by a project in Thelma’s career class on advocacy for graduate students and new professionals. The task force is collecting data on such issues as new professional compensation across settings (both geographically and among professions); expanding opportunities for counselors in nontraditional settings; and highlighting transferable skills to corporations, health care organizations, industry, and higher education. Recognizing the great needs of counselors before they are licensed to practice independently, I have asked the task force to also explore the post-graduation licensure internship and supervision experiences of our counselors and recommend advocacy directions. I have also asked our Professional Standards Committee to examine the licensure, certification and practice trends for this group of professional counselors.
I am inspired by the advocacy work of one of our ACA members, Summer Allen, who founded the Texas LPC Intern Association. In Texas, pre-independently licensed counselors, or those who have graduated from a master’s program and are working on supervised licensure hours, are called “interns.” The mission of this organization is to “support the professional development of current and future LPC Interns through free resources, support, community, and advocacy.” In fact, one of its first advocacy efforts was aimed at petitioning the state and licensure board to change the title from LPC intern to LPC associate. Please visit txlpcinterns.com to learn more about the organization’s efforts.
It is often said that graduate students are the lifeblood of our profession. The joy of working with them and supporting them on their journey is one of the main reasons that I became a counselor educator. I implore our ACA branches, divisions, regions, and sister organizations to pay attention to this group of professional counselors. If you know of other organizations and grassroots efforts aimed at supporting new professionals and early career counselors, please reach out and let me know.
Follow Heather on Twitter @HeatherTrepal